Rare Ives and epic Mahler from Zander, Boston Philharmonic

April 27, 2019 at 12:39 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic in music of Bruckner and Beethoven Saturday night.

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic Friday night at Symphony Hall.

In early 1911, Gustav Mahler happened upon a score to a symphony at the office of a New York publisher. The composer — Charles Ives — was an unfamiliar name. But Mahler, intrigued by this Symphony No. 3, slipped the score into his briefcase in hopes of putting it in front of the ensemble he led, the New York Philharmonic.

With Mahler’s death later that year, Ives’s symphony fell into obscurity and didn’t receive its world premiere until 1946. To this day the Third Symphony is more read about in history books and biographies than played. Its emotional directness and sweeping melodies, spiced with just enough dissonance to tingle the ear, seem only to deepen the mystery of its neglect.

Fortunately, Benjamin Zander lavished new attention on to this American classic in the Boston Philharmonic’s final concert of the season Friday night at Symphony Hall, revealing all of its arresting beauty, Proustian nostalgia and timeless charm.

Subtitled “The Camp Meeting,” the Third Symphony packs a lot into its 20 minutes, with hymns, war songs, and marches capturing a sense of the composer’s rural New England upbringing. Neither harmonically daring as his Fourth Symphony nor as all-embracing as the Universe Symphony, the Third nevertheless unfolds in an attractive, tuneful pastiche.

Zander offered a lush, romantic approach, navigating the thickets of Ives’s off-kilter rhythms and thick textures with an eye towards the big picture. The symphony opened smoothly, with a quotation of the hymn, “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing,” quickening into a march. When the hymn returned at movement’s end, Zander coaxed warm, reverential playing from the strings.

Dance rhythms cast a bucolic scene in the second movement, and the orchestra, under Zander’s swift gestures, successfully maneuvered all of the rhythmic twists and turns — a challenge for any ensemble. In the final movement, the conductor wove the swirling lines and stinging dissonances into a thick tapestry of sound. Church bells, chiming as if from a distance, brought a sense of serenity as the symphony’s final bars faded in the hall.

The Philharmonic followed with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, a grand narrative fashioned out of folk dances and marches.In this musical journey from tragedy to hope, Zander led a performance of precision and urgency.

Brisk tempos kept the music surging ever forward, even in the solemn sections of the first and final movements. Details were plentiful, Zander opting to shape each phrase of an opening trumpet call that is often taken freely. Principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work pealed out that fanfare with a gleaming tone, while the second theme coursed with subtle force, revealing how Mahler’s tragic strains could easily turn into turmoil.

The conductor carried that energy into the stormy second movement, which erupted with propulsive string figures. Even as the cellos sounded out their amber phrases, Zander never lingered, keeping the music roiling with quiet intensity.

His lilting tempo in the Scherzo yielded beaming French horn solos and bright string phrases. Trumpets and thumping basses rendered their parts with the verve of a village band, and in the central section, pizzicato strings and solo oboe threaded their lines together for intimate musical moments.

The Adagietto is the heart of this epic symphony. There, Zander sculpted every passing string phrase with keen attention to the rising and falling line, which harpist Amanda Romano Foreman supported with a golden touch.

Zander released the symphony’s tightly coiled tension in a majestic finale. Its dances, with their foot-stomping zeal, swelled into muscular chords in a rousing conclusion.

Prior to the performance, a representative from the Mahler Society of Mexico honored the conductor with an award for his continued dedication to the composer’s music, which makes up much of every Boston Philharmonic season.  Indeed, for Mahler enthusiasts, Boston has no better advocate than Zander.

Benjamin Zander will lead the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in music by Assad, Sibelius, Bottesini, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns, and Dvořák 3 p.m. May 12 at Sanders Theatre. bostonphil.org; 617-236-0999.


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