Cellist, Boston Philharmonic close season in style with rousing French works

April 20, 2015 at 1:51 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre.

For their final concert of the season, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic served up three familiar works Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre. The concert’s most colorful offerings were split between two pieces: Berlioz’s epic Symphonie fantastique and Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto.

With Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz ushered in the age of the modern orchestra. His kaleidoscopic score captures all of the rich colors and multi-layered instrumentation that one frequently experiences in large-scale works today.

Sunday’s rendering was spectacular. Zander took the symphony at a statelier tempo than one normally experiences in performances of this work. But it was a choice that resulted in rich musical rewards and allowed the stories of this “episode in the life of an artist” to unfold in bold detail.

That was especially evident in the final two movements, Berlioz’s opium-induced “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

For the march, the Boston Philharmonic brass captured the cheers of a crowd gathered to watch an execution to brilliant effect. And the strings and winds caught the hellfire, monstrous growls, and the cackling laugh of witches in the final movement. The woodwinds transformed the symphony’s primary theme into a devilish dance, and the witches’ round—a rousing fugue combined with forceful statements of the Dies Irae—moved with fiery energy.

The other movements also spotlighted fine playing from the orchestra.

The themes that make up the first movement, “Reveries and Passions,” passed through the ensemble in delicate statements, coming and going like fleeting thoughts. Zander, though, took care to bring out the movement’s climactic moments and the orchestra answered with playing of blistering intensity. The second movement waltz glided along through sweet- toned phrases. The pastoral third movement beamed from the warm, expressive playing of English hornist Michael Dressler. Oboist Jennifer Slowik answered with silky phrases from offstage.

Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, cast in one continuous movement, is chock-full of beautiful melody and technical virtuosity. And the soloist, 21-year-old Jonah Ellsworth, managed to capture the full effects of both.

Jonah Ellsworth

Ellsworth has given numerous performances in Boston as a soloist and orchestra member with the Boston Philharmonic and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. The cellist boasts a remarkable technique, and the concerto’s fiery passages showed him in nearly flawless fingerwork that took him all over the instrument.

But the most impressive quality of his playing is the tenderness he draws from his cello, and it was the lyrical passages in the concerto that featured Ellsworth at his most brilliant. His tone is thoroughly song-like, laced with a hint of silver, and manages to resonate deeply in its full range. His cello sang beautifully in the concerto’s many cantabile passages, and he handled the waltz-like theme that comes mid-piece with charming and affectionate tone.

Zander wove a gentle and sensitive accompaniment for the music’s tender moments, but dug in for the mercurial passages that dominate the conclusion of the work. Here too the orchestra was in fine form, capturing the raw intensity of the concerto’s climactic points.

The concert opened with Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser, a work also rife with drama and passion. With bold, broad gestures, Zander commanded an energetic reading that captured both of those aspects.

The overture featured the full power of the Boston Philharmonic. Winds and horns opened the work with hymn-like solemnity. The ensuing cello melody was stirring, and the big theme central to the piece sounded with glowing passion from the violins.

Sunday’s concert marked the final performance for principal clarinetist Thomas Hill, who is stepping down after twenty-two years with the orchestra. With the crisp, expressive playing exhibited by the Boston Philharmonic Sunday afternoon, one couldn’t have asked for a better and more heartfelt goodbye.

Benjamin Zander will lead the Boston Youth Philharmonic in Act III from Wagner’s Siegfried, featuring Alwyn Mellor, Deborah Humble, Stefan Vinke, and Mark Delavan as soloists 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. bostonphil.org

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