Concert Review: Boston Philharmonic plays Ginastera, Ravel, and Strauss

This was a truly great performance, one that fully suited the BPO’s season-long, dual commemorations.

Benjamin Zander conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Paul Marotta, Perfect Bokeh Photography

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s (BPO) celebratory season — marking the ensemble’s 40th birthday and music director Benjamin Zander’s 80th  — kicked into high gear with this weekend’s concerts featuring music by Alberto Ginastera, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Strauss.

Ginastera’s 1953 Variaciones concertantes is a tour-de-force of orchestral colors, potent musical ideas, and driving rhythms. Each section of the piece highlights a different solo instrument (or pair of them), beginning with a lengthy duet between solo cello and harp. The variations themselves are structured as a series of contrasting “manners”: there’s a “jocose variation” (for solo flute), a “dramatic variation” (with solo viola), and a “rhythmic variation” (for trumpet and trombone), among many others. Ultimately, the piece culminates in a brilliant, vigorous rondo-finale.

Saturday’s performance at Jordan Hall was galvanic. Principal cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and principal harp Ina Zdorovetchi set the bar with their introductory duet and the ensemble never looked back.

Indeed, the score’s most delicate moments — the strings’ subtle interlude between the theme and first variation; the lilting “pastoral variation,” played with rosy warmth by principal horn Kevin Owen; the contrabass’s reprise of the theme (executed with lovely tone by principal bass Anthony D’Amico) — were all etched with care.

And the athletic episodes bristled. The concluding rondo, its steep debt to the “Danse sacrale” from Le sacre du printemps notwithstanding, was a bracing romp.

After the Ginastera came the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. This is a familiar piece to Boston audiences — the Boston Symphony has all but trademarked it — but Zander’s reading with the BPO stood tall on its own merits.

The gossamer textures of the “Introduction” burbled amiably. Lisa Hennessy’s account of the “Pantomime’s” flute solo was liquid. Rane Moore’s clarinet solos in the “Danse générale” scorched and Zander whipped that movement to a delirious, concluding frenzy.

Throughout this Daphnis, the BPO’s playing was shapely, richly colored, and full-bodied. Perhaps the reading’s most striking technical feature was Zander’s command of orchestral balances which, though they grew plenty loud, never once, in Jordan’s smallish dimensions sounded shrill.

Impressive as that feat was in the Ravel, it proved even more striking in the night’s closer, Strauss’s egotistical tone poem Ein Heldenleben.

A forty-five-minute long essay about the composer battling his critics, performing good deeds, and being transformed by the influence of his faithful companion (Strauss’s wife, Pauline, represented by a series of extended, passionate violin solos), the 1899 score has long been a repertoire stalwart.

But, surely, performances of such sweeping spirit and fun, like the BPO’s this weekend, are rare.

On Saturday, tempos were bracing and swift (Zander’s interpretation was evidently inspired by Strauss’s nimble, late-in-life recording of the work). The score’s contrasting characters — the noble hero, his snide critics, his loving companion — were each cleanly and brilliantly etched. And it stinted nothing on drama, with playing of majesty, fury, and fervor unfolding in spades.

If Strauss was the hero of his own tone poem, Saturday’s Held was concertmaster Matthew Vera, who filled in on short notice for the BPO’s indisposed regular first-chair, Joanna Kurkowicz. You’d never have guessed he took on the part in just a matter of days. Playing with pure tone, terrific character, and not a bit of hesitation (several of the third movement’s biggest runs were dispatched at lightning speed), Vera delivered an account of the solo part that was wholly captivating. His is — or should be — a bright future.

The BPO, too, acquitted itself brilliantly. The woodwind playing in the second movement (“The Hero’s Adversaries”) was wickedly droll. Strauss’s battle music built to furious apogees (with ferocious bass drum attacks to boot), while the horn section’s burnished realization of their part in “The Hero’s Works of Peace” left nothing to be desired.

It was, in a word (or a few), a truly great performance, one that fully suited the BPO’s season-long, dual commemorations.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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