Concert Review: Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s first appearance of the season presented canonical selections without a hint of complacency or apathy.

Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in action at Symphony Hall. Photo: Courtesy of the BPYO.

If there were an award for performances of standard fare played with fresh purpose and zest this fall, the Boston Philharmonic would have won it: their canonical October and November concerts teemed with energy, brilliance, color, and – above all – elemental life force. And those same qualities carried over Sunday afternoon to the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s (BPYO) first appearance of the season at Symphony Hall.

Of course, the common denominator between both groups is Benjamin Zander, who remains as spry, enthusiastic, and intellectually engaged a conductor as ever, even when he’s conducting pieces we’ve all heard countless times.

Sunday’s concert focused around Felix Mendelssohn’s evergreen Violin Concerto. Stefan Jackiw was the soloist.

His reading was built on an almost Classical foundation: an elegant, floating tone; textural transparency; clean passagework; pristine intonation.

To that Jackiw added a terrific dose of character and rhythmic momentum. The first movement drove passionately. True, its overall tempo was on the quick side. But it was the flexibility with which Jackiw shaped and executed the movement’s smaller phrases that really brought the performance to life.

Contrasts of intensity and introspection were powerfully emphasized, too: the movement’s climaxes (especially the cadenza) were wonderfully fervent, while the lovely second theme sang with unrestrained elegance.

So did the gorgeous second movement, which Jackiw played with a natural, effortless tone. The finale was effervescent, its numerous rapid-fire figurations all speaking with pert brilliance, and the central contrapuntal exchanges between soloist and orchestra nicely shaped.

Zander led the BPYO in a responsive accompaniment. There was a welcome tension Sunday between the solo and orchestral lines – Jackiw sometimes pushing ahead, sometimes suddenly holding back, and the orchestra responding in turn – that one doesn’t often encounter in this piece.

What’s more, the Andante movement was played as just that (and not like an Adagio or Andante non troppo, which too often can be the case). There, too, the woodwind playing over the theme’s reprise was serene: warm, sweet, and songful.

Jackiw rewarded a big ovation with an encore of the Largo from Bach’s C-major Violin Sonata. Dedicated to Zander (with whom he had first played the Mendelssohn in concert as a teenager in 1999), Sunday’s was a probing, touching reading, one that, like his performance of the Mendelssohn, cast something very familiar in a new light.

The Mahler’s First Symphony that came after intermission was likewise vividly etched. Zander’s an old hand with Mahler, and this interpretation benefited from his long experience with the composer: full of color, atmosphere and, especially over the last two movements, narrative cogency.

The opening bars of the first movement, with their mysterious evocations of the natural world, shimmered. Some of the fast part’s quieter moments might have benefited from a hair more personality and nuance, but the movement’s climaxes were well-blended and its apex featured some terrific brass playing.

A lusty, rollicking account of the second movement followed, brash and spirited in the outer thirds and marked by (again) some beautifully blended woodwind lines in the elegant, central ländler.

In the third movement, principal bass Sarah Wager nailed her opening solo and the BPYO rendered Mahler’s peculiar soundscape, with its pseudo-Hassidic gestures, songful interludes, and blazingly inventive colors, with clarity and zeal.

They did the same in the finale, whose several sections were all clearly delineated, structurally. But it was Zander’s close attention to the textural and motivic content in the score’s transitions that gave this performance such a potent, dramatic shape. Indeed, the way the music works its way back from the harrowing world of the third movement to the sunny, ultimately triumphant, uplands of the first came across with thrilling – and uncommon – directness on Sunday.

The BPYO’s playing was urgent and turbulent in the movement’s stormy passages, lyrical in the reflective ones, and dynamically nuanced throughout. Its concluding part (introduced on Sunday by a taut, excellent viola section solo) was, despite some fatigue in the horns, exhilarating and cathartic.

Sunday’s concert began with Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino. From the opening, slashing brass attacks to the delicately balanced string textures over its slow, lyrical bit and the exuberant final bars, this was a seething, motivically tight, and exciting reading: like everything else on the afternoon’s docket, played without a hint of complacency or apathy.

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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