Classical Music Review: The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Brazil, Part One

By Jonathan Blumhofer

[Editor’s Note: Arts Fuse critic Jonathan Blumhofer is currently traveling with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra as it tours Brazil. He filed this review while on the road. Also, Jonathan commented in an e-mail that “apparently music criticism is a dead art in Brazil. There haven’t been any reviews of the orchestra’s concerts, though conductor Benjamin Zander has had several interview requests from the media.” Evidence that arts criticism in trouble around the globe.]

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Sala São Paulo. Photo: Paul Marott.

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s (BPYO) eight-city, nine-concert Brazilian tour brought them, Tuesday night, to one of the world’s greatest concert halls: the Sala São Paulo, an aesthetic and acoustic gem that sits in the heart of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest metropolis.

Once the Great Hall of a train station, the Estação Júlio Prestes, the Sala was renovated in the 1990s and is now part of the Complexo Cultural Júlio Prestes. It seats around 1500 in a mostly-classic European shoebox arrangement: main floor, two levels of balconies behind and on the sides of the hall, plus seating behind the stage.

The BPYO’s repertoire in Brazil is drawn from last year’s programs and is built around Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, with Anna Fedorova as the soloist. The São Paulo concert also featured Clarice Assad’s Bonecos de Olindo and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10.

The program began with the Assad. Commissioned by the BPYO for their last Boston concert of the year, it’s a fetching eight-minute-long curtain raiser, full of snappy rhythms, lilting tunes, and beguiling orchestral colors – including a substantial percussion section solo about two-thirds of the way through.

Tuesday’s performance of it, the second and last of the tour, was full-bodied and played with panache: songful, vigorous, and warm-hearted.

The São Paulo concert marked the third (of nine) times Fedorova will be appearing as the soloist in the Rachmaninoff during this tour. Her performance of the piece with the BPYO in Boston last November was one of the season’s highlights: spirited, passionate, texturally lean.

Since then, her command of the music only seems to have deepened. On Tuesday, she delivered a fervent, tempestuous account of the solo part. The first movement’s roiling arpeggios thundered and its climactic episodes spoke with terrific force. Her playing in the finale was likewise impellent and stylish.

The lovely second movement, with its delicate chamber-music-like exchanges, glowed, Fedorova shaping the solo line as it moved between foreground and background with the utmost care and focus.

She was aided in that movement by the excellent playing of BPYO principal flute Hunter O’Brian and principal clarinet Diego Bacigalupe, whose solos early in the movement were perfectly blended and phrased: you honestly couldn’t tell where one instrument left off and the next started playing.

The whole ensemble delivered a robust, flexible account of the orchestral part. The acoustic of the Sala gives extra weight to low instruments, especially, which resulted in a reading of the first movement that had an extra dose of swagger and depth to it. The second was warm and transparent while the orchestral sound in the finale was potent.

Afterwards, Fedorova rewarded a hale ovation with an encore of Alexander Scriabin’s Poeme, op. 32.

Shostakovich Ten filled out the evening’s second half.

This was another piece from the BPYO’s November concert. Then, I found it compelling, urgent, and impressively dance-like if, at times, a bit tonally lightweight.

There was nothing anemic about the sound the orchestra brought to it on Tuesday, though. Rather, this was one of the great Shostakovich performances I’ve heard anywhere.

Zander led a monumental account of the first movement. There’s a lot of music here and he doesn’t rush through it – Tuesday’s reading ran close to twenty-five minutes. But it never dragged or lost its way.

Instead, what we heard was cogent and forceful. The music danced when it should: the melancholy waltz (first played by solo flute and later taken up by the clarinets) had a distinctive lilt. But these moments were offset by the score’s glowering episodes: the terrifying brass chorales, crunching string dissonances, and screaming woodwind melodies. This was about as searing – and cleanly-articulated – an account of the piece as they come.

The violent second movement, with its galloping tattoos and manic off-beats, raged. A slightly-unfocused start to the third movement quickly settled in, while Zander took the fast half of the finale at a torrid clip. The last had the effect of amplifying the sense of terror that lies just beneath the music’s surface; this is music that ought to sound ambiguously triumphant at the end. Here it most certainly did.

After another loud ovation, he led the orchestra in “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The movement is something of a BPYO anthem and was played here with warmth and fervor. Then it was off into the Brazilian night and on to the next stop of the trip, Ribeirão Preto; the tour continues.

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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