Young violinist provides the highlight in New England Philharmonic’s rough-hewn children’s concert

December 10, 2012 at 11:53 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

12-year-old violinist Ilana Zaks performed Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” Sunday with the New England Philharmonic. Photo: Susan Wilson

Music appreciation demonstrations rarely feature a live orchestra. But Richard Pittman made good use of the New England Philharmonic for an ambitious and interactive family concert at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center Sunday afternoon.

In a career marked by adventurous programming, Pittman and the NEP have tackled some heavy repertoire, such as Britten’s War Requiem and Berg’s Wozzeck. Sunday’s program, billed as “Beats and Beasts,” was especially beefy.  Pittman offered the audience a musical tour of beloved works by Copland and Bizet (via de Sarasate) and lesser-known pieces by Wallingford Riegger and Silvestre Revueltas, taking time to instruct listeners in some of the intricate aspects of the program.

The NEP, is capable of producing a full, rich sound. But their performance Sunday afternoon was a little ragged, marred with missed entrances, chipped notes in the winds and brass, and a cautious approach to the music. On the whole, rehearsal time and interpretation seemed to be lacking as Pittman expended his energy beating time to the rhythmically complicated works.

Copland’s “Hoedown” from Rodeo served as an appropriate opener and gave NEP a chance to show off its ensemble power, though the playing felt mechanical and the music failed to take off.

Wallingford Riegger’s New Dance and Copland’s “Buckeroo Holiday,” also from Rodeo, each offer a panorama of rhythmic complexity, Pittman noted as he demonstrated the important elements of each work for the audience. (He guided the listeners in singing each note of the C major scale before explaining how it was employed by Copland).

The NEP held together for the Riegger, but the playing suffered from the same problems as in “Hoedown”: the performance felt labored, the music falling flat in the stately tempo.

In “Buckeroo Holiday,” the orchestra missed several of the entrances and the winds and strings struggled to connect their phrases.  At other times, the bottom-heavy brass section pulled the ensemble’s sound out of balance. But the performance contained some humorous moments. The trombone and trumpet soloists, standing to play their parts, donned cowboy hats, much to audience satisfaction.

Silvestre Revueltas’ muscular, poly-rhythmic Sensemayá, the most difficult work played that afternoon, featured the NEP at its strongest, particularly in the work’s full-bodied climax where the instruments collide in thick, Stravinskian sonorities.

But the highlight of the concert was the performance of Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, based on themes from Bizet’s opera, by the fantastic pre-teen violinist Ilana Zaks.

Winner of the NE Philharmonic’s Young Artists Competition, Zaks has already performed as soloist with the Boston Civic Symphony, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and other regional orchestras.

In a recent interview with Wicked Local Needham, she said that her main challenge as a young musician is to make “everything sound at its best, so it doesn’t sound like a 12-year old child, but a real violinist.”

She certainly met that goal Sunday afternoon for she played like no 12-year old that I’ve ever heard. On the whole, she possesses a fine understanding of the flashy Carmen Fantasy, and she was fearless in her approach to the piece.  Her strengths lie in the lyrical passages, where she played with a warm, singing tone. Her execution in the difficult technical lines sometimes obscured her fine tone and intonation, which still gives her room to grow. Nonetheless, she is a gifted young local musician to watch.

The concert concluded with a return to Copland’s music in a heart-warming rendering of the first five of the Old American Songs, sung to orchestral accompaniment by the PALS Children’s Chorus. The ensemble sang a tender “Simple Gifts” and a humorous “I Bought Me a Cat,” which featured the children holding signs of well-drawn animals noted with the sounds they make. (The wife, a cartoon of Marge Simpson, drew laughter).

Pittman even invited the audience to join the performance and vocalize the animal sounds. He led an immediate repeat of the song to close the concert since, he joked, the crowd had “just learned their parts.”

Following the concert, children and their families were invited onstage to participate in an “orchestral petting zoo,” where they could ask questions from orchestra members and even try out some of the instruments for themselves. The remaining audience members left the hall to the sounds of the children happily plucking cello strings, tooting on horns, and beating on the snare drum.

The New England Philharmonic will perform music by Peter Child, Michael Gilbertson, Bernard Hoffer, and Ralph Vaughan Williams 8 p.m., March 2, at Tsai Performance Center.

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