Elgar, Ravel, Shostakovich works imbued with resonance by Zander, Boston Phil Youth Orchestra

February 28, 2022 at 11:44 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Zlatomir Fung performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

“A classical music concert isn’t a political event,” Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander said before Sunday’s performance at Symphony Hall. Even so, he conceded, the challenge of disentangling outside events from concert music is sometimes very real.

So it was with the afternoon’s program of pieces by Maurice Ravel, Edward Elgar, and Dmitri Shostakovich. However, in this instance those muddy ties gave the afternoon’s selections, all written between 1919 and 1937, added resonance.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto—“the saddest concerto in the repertoire,” as Zander put it in comments to the matinee audience—deals with loss on both grand and intimate scales. Completed in 1919, the score primarily reflects the composer’s shock at the devastation wrought by the Great War; it also anticipates the death of Elgar’s wife, Alice, in 1920.

Sunday’s soloist was Zlatomir Fung. Winner of First Prize in the cello division of the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition, the 22-year-old Fung is a thoroughly engaging musician. His tone is rich, projection assured, facility flawless. Moreover, in the Elgar, Fung displayed a maturity beyond his years, illuminating the score’s peculiar blend of nostalgia, playfulness, and sorrow with unfailing naturalness and ease.

He articulated the concerto’s solo part with burnished elegance, especially in the wistful first movement and soaring Adagio. Yet there was an expressive depth to Fung’s interpretation, too: phrasings were flexible and the musical line moved at what seemed just the right pace. Ultimately, the whole piece unfolded with rhapsodic fervor.

Nor did it lack for characterization, either of the sweeping, dramatic kind, or the more extroverted and impish variety. In the Allegro molto, for instance, Fung dispatched the movement’s scurrying motto with sparkling whimsy. At the same time, he boldly shaped the finale: intense, muscular, and swaggering over its first half, then dissolving into radiant melancholy at the end.

Zander and the BPYO delivered an equally smart and heartfelt accompaniment. To be sure, the sight of Fung and all the orchestral strings swaying together to the rhythm of the first movement’s opening theme was auspicious. Their larger reading evinced good balancing and clean articulations. In particular, the orchestra’s focused tone during the concerto’s introspective sections brought the work’s poignant character fully to life.

Afterwards, Fung offered the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 as an encore.

If the Elgar is over-ridingly sad, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is overwhelmingly triumphant—but steeped in tragedy. Composed in 1937, the piece is both an “official” apology for Shostakovich’s alleged sins against approved Soviet musical aims and a private testimony of resilience in the face of injustice and oppression.

Since its premiere, the score has stood as Shostakovich’s most consistently popular and widely-performed symphony. Sunday’s performance gave one a renewed appreciation for why that’s the case.

The BPYO’s three-dimensional, purposeful reading was less played through than lived out. Rhythms were taut, tempos fluent, textures revealingly clear. The music’s contrapuntal lines danced. Climaxes, especially in the outer movements, were ear-splitting.

However, for all its mighty exclamations, this Shostakovich Five thrived on moments of quiet and delicacy. Its exposed woodwind exchanges unwound tenderly. The Largo’s fragile episodes were gripping for their intensity; its last bars provided fleeting, shimmering catharsis.

Throughout, the ensemble teased out the score’s abundant lyricism. The result was a performance of riveting focus and, especially over the finale’s insistent final pages, soaring, singing defiance.

The BPYO made similarly impassioned work of Ravel’s La valse. The French composer’s 1920 deconstruction of the Viennese waltz is at once an orchestral showstopper and a harrowing tone poem depicting a civilized society feeding itself into a meat grinder.

Sunday’s performance captured its chilling denouement with ferocious energy. Brasses snarled, strings wailed, and the last, machine gun-like tattoo sounded, for once, genuinely shocking.

That was because all that had come before had been supremely elegant and suave. The score’s fluid woodwind lines burbled. The waltz rhythms gamboled carelessly. True, hints of rocky shoals—an ominous bass clarinet here, contrabassoon there—occasionally peeked out of the texture. But these were easily swallowed up again. When the culminating moment arrived, despite ample warnings, it landed abruptly.

As if to emphasize this, Zander prefaced the Ravel by reading an eloquent meditation by BPYO trumpeter Cody York that connected the afternoon’s program with recent global developments. He then led the orchestra in the Ukrainian national anthem, a sober, two-hundred-year-old hymn whose text, speaking of freedom from oppressors and living at home in peace, emerged as, perhaps, the afternoon’s most potent musical statement.

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra plays music by Bernstein, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky at 8 p.m. May 6 at Symphony Hall. bostonphil.org

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