Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra bounces back with powerful Mahler

November 20, 2021 at 11:58 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Soprano Sofia Fomina, Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performed for a live in-person audience on Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hillary Scott

With their return to action on Friday night, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra ended a hiatus that was long even by pandemic standards. The concert at Symphony Hall came more than 20 months after the orchestra signed off in March 2020 with a safety-conscious performance streamed from an empty venue. Their last outing with a traditional audience was in November 2019, two years ago almost to the day. 

Given all that, and the reality of BPYO’s regular membership turnover, one might have expected some rust in their ambitious opening-night program of Barber, Mozart and Mahler. Yet what emerged on Friday was an orchestra already in mid-season form, a group playing with a level of energy and attention to detail that places them among the finest orchestras, period, in the region.

It didn’t hurt that the night offered unanimity of purpose for musicians and listeners alike.

Orchestra founder and conductor Benjamin Zander told concertgoers that the program’s first half functioned as an “act of healing,” with Barber’s affecting Adagio for Strings commemorating the pandemic’s victims and Mozart’s exuberant “Haffner” Symphony proclaiming the “essential human capacity for inspiration and renewal.”

Both works fulfilled these purposes admirably. The Barber was beautifully shaped, its textures smartly balanced, its tone burnished. Indeed, the fluidity of the melodic line was the story of this Adagio: hushed and focused to start, and building inexorably to a searing lyrical climax.

Mozart’s buoyant 1782 Symphony provided a brilliant, sunny contrast. Its radiant opening movement offered a mix of taut rhythms, bold contrasts of dynamics, and subtle shadings of instrumental color. More of the same followed in the BPYO’s graceful account of the second, while the minuet advanced vigorously with a deftly shaped Trio.

In the quicksilver finale, the BPYO’s performance was, by and large, clean and exuberant. A couple of blurry figurations aside, the reading was flawlessly balanced.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 combined the pathos of the Barber with the abandon of the Mozart. Premiered in 1901, the Fourth is outwardly Mahler’s most genial symphony. Yet that tranquil mood is deceptive. Thematically, the work contemplates life, death, heaven and hell with intricate and delicate instrumental writing. It is essentially sixty minutes of orchestral chamber music.

As such, it’s not normally the domain of youth orchestras. But Zander and the BPYO didn’t spend the pandemic sitting idly by: When it became obvious last year that performance was impossible, conductor and players spent their rehearsal hours doing a deep-dive into this very score, examining it from all angles.

Those weeks of study paid off in as gripping and natural a Mahler Fourth as I’ve ever heard. The first movement was both disciplined and flexible, with seamless exchanges between its numerous themes.

In the second, the music’s sheer weirdness came over bracingly – thanks, in no small part, to concertmaster Eric Chen’s sneeringly characterful scordatura solos.

The gorgeous third movement was spacious and serene, and never lacked for concentration. Zander’s handling of the shifts of character between each variation were perfectly unaffected, and the movement’s rich climaxes were contrasted by playing of astonishing tonal presence.

Soprano Sofia Fomina joined the BPYO for the finale’s concluding song, an angelic evocation of heaven she delivered with excellent diction, spotless intonation and a pleasingly ruddy warmth of tone. While periodically a touch raw, the orchestra’s accompaniment was tight and discreet.

Fomina and the ensemble offered a touching rendition of the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka as an encore, yet the story of the night was this Mahler. On a special night, the BPYO’s was a performance of real meaning, purpose, and power.

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra next plays music by Barber and Shostakovich and is joined by Zlatomir Fung for Elgar’s Cello Concerto on February 27 at 3 p.m. at Symphony Hall.

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