A gifted young cellist joins Zander, Boston Philharmonic for Dvořák-Brahms program

November 13, 2022 at 11:43 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Hayoung Choi performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Saturday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

Few conductors live long enough—or survive professionally—to observe fifty years on a podium. Locally audiences have been lucky: in recent years, Richard Pittman managed a half-century with Boston Musica Viva and Martin Pearlman is about to accomplish the same with Boston Baroque.

Now add Benjamin Zander to the list. The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director marked the semi-centennial of his conducting debut Saturday night at Symphony Hall in fittingly celebratory style. Inside the program book was a mimeograph of a Governor’s Citation honoring Zander’s lifetime of musical and educational work signed by the current occupant, Charlie Baker, alongside Mayor Michelle Wu’s decree that November 12, 2022 was “Benjamin Zander Day in the City of Boston.”

Then there was the concert, itself, which proved a quintessential Zander affair, reprising the first piece he ever conducted—Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 2—and celebrating a young soloist along the way.

The latter was Hayoung Choi, who took the spotlight in Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. A gold medalist in this year’s Queen Elisabeth Competition, the 24-year-old is an accomplished technician—her fingerwork throughout the night was dizzyingly impressive—though she is still growing as an interpreter.

Dvořák’s 1895 score served as an excellent showcase for Choi’s strengths. Her tone had no trouble carrying, either in big moments or small. Especially when her playing relaxed to breathe, Choi’s performance took on an inviting urgency. In the first movement’s development, her dialogue with BPO principal flute Lisa Hennessy sparkled. The Adagio, with its intense lyricism and beautifully shaped cadenza proved hypnotic. So, too, the finale’s tender closing pages where the cellist was firmly in her element, playing with soaring focus and resonance.

These moments compensated for a periodically over-aggressive approach to the concerto’s outer movements. In the opening Allegro, for instance, extroverted passagework tended to emphasize arrival points more than the journey of getting to them. Choi certainly had no issue dispatching the notes, but they sometimes wanted for warmth and shape—as did the finale’s recurring primary motive.

Nevertheless, her performance of this indestructible score fired up the night’s audience. She rewarded them with the “Intermezzo e Danza Finale” from the Suite for Solo Cello by Zander’s cello teacher, Gaspar Cassadó.

Zander led the BPO in an accompaniment that never wanted for direction or purpose. His was an unsentimental but never unfeeling Dvořák. Tempos moved rightly, textures were clean. The discreet woodwind writing in the Allegro’s exposition spoke vitally, while the slow movement’s opening hymn for winds and trombones was a picture of serenity.

Throughout, the conductor’s feel for the music’s architecture ensured that the performance didn’t get muddled by the concerto’s various melancholic turns. It was, in a word, a self-justifying reading—which is precisely what such canonic fare demands.=

The same held true for the BPO’s performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.

Written in 1877, the Second is the sunniest, least conflicted of the composer’s major orchestral works. Often its bucolic lyricism carries the day—but not always: Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, and Georg Solti, among others, knew how to mine it for fire and excitement. So does Zander. 

Saturday’s performance was rooted in the dance, be that the first movement’s lush waltzes, the Adagio’s elegantly tripping maggiore theme, the third’s intimations of rustic schwung, or the finale’s rollicking Scotch snaps. Along the way, the ties that bind Brahms so centrally to the repertoire—his anticipations of Mahler, echoes of Bruckner, reminiscences of Beethoven and Schumann—were impossible to miss.

This happened, fundamentally, because Zander and the BPO took the music at face value. The score flowed naturally and, accordingly, the first movement’s inner voices moved like clockwork. The Adagio’s contrasts of texture and character were boldly etched. Meanwhile, the Allegretto’s transitions unfolded with gripping purpose: each of its three kinds of music occupied distinct expressive planes.

All the while, the BPO’s performance was consistently well-balanced and -shaped. Despite a couple moments of sour brass intonation, the orchestra’s larger ensemble was tight. In the first movement, the strings spun out their legato phrasings with silken purity while the tutti figurations in the finale, taken at a refreshingly true “con spirito,” were thrillingly impellent.

The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, 3 p.m. November 20 at Symphony Hall. bostonphil.org

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