Zander, sans scores, leads Boston Phil Youths in kinetic Beethoven and Strauss

November 21, 2022 at 10:48 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra with concertmaster Eric Chen in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben Sunday afternoon. Photo: Hilary Scott

If Sunday’s program from the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra felt a bit like déjà-vu, that was intentional. The current season is, chronologically, the ensemble’s eleventh, but, thanks to the pandemic, the tenth in which they’ve been able to present in-person concerts. So the whole year’s got a bit of celebratory, first-decade retrospection built in to it.

This weekend’s opener at Symphony Hall looked back to the very first piece the orchestra played in 2012—Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben —pairing it with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. And, if that heroic program didn’t promise enough excitement, the days leading up to it offered some next-level absurdity: conductor Benjamin Zander’s car was recently stolen and, along with it, his scores for yesterday’s concert. By curtain time they were still missing, though the maestro’s long experience with this repertoire meant that, ultimately, the show could proceed as planned.

To be sure, Zander’s an old hand with Beethoven—he noted to Sunday’s audience that he first conducted the Fifth Symphony fifty years ago—tending to favor swift tempos and generally adhering to the composer’s controversial metronome markings. The results are often energetic, which, for a piece like the Fifth, is good; the last thing this evergreen needs is to come off as ponderous or verbose.

Sunday’s interpretation certainly sounded fresh, even as tutti spots in the first movement felt blunt and the big string section (there were 42 violins) was curiously muted in tone. The Andante, though, was all sweetness and light, Zander drawing beautifully flowing, shapely statements of its refrain from the BPYO’s low strings.

Here and in the Scherzo, his purposeful direction clearly illuminated the music’s structure. Indeed, underlining Beethoven’s use of variation as a developmental technique provided the larger reading a strong sense of direction.

That was particularly useful in the finale, with its amalgamation of themes and textures heard earlier in the piece. Though the bold statements at the beginning of the movement were brass-heavy, balances improved as the performance proceeded; the coda, with its exuberant piccolo runs, was rightly triumphant.

The BPYO’s playing was likewise kinetic in Ein Heldenleben. This 1898 score is the antepenultimate of the composer’s eight major tone poems and, in many regards, the most egocentric: the hero of its title is Strauss, himself.

Be that as it may, Strauss, at least in Zander’s view, saw himself as an archetype: in this reading, the struggles, successes, and moments of confidence and doubt articulated in the music aren’t unique to the composer’s experience; they’re universal. Accordingly, Ein Heldenleben has an enduring relevance.

On Sunday, the score was played with appealing songfulness. The Hero’s theme swaggered, yes, but it was also strikingly warm and lyrical. So was the mélange of quotations in “The Hero’s Works of Peace” and the radiant string hymn before the final bit of tumult in “The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfillment.”

Concertmaster Eric Chen delivered the violin solos in “The Hero’s Companion” with considerable panache. At times, one might have wanted greater presence from his fiddle, but his grasp of the notes and overriding character of the music was compelling. Also, for plushness of tone, Chen’s account of his solo’s soaring peroration left little to be desired.

Mellifluous though Zander’s approach to the piece was, this was not an  overly sentimental Heldenleben. Tempos moved well. When there needed to be an edge to the sound, there was: the dry, peckish woodwinds in “The Hero’s Adversaries,” for instance, spat mockingly. And the battle scene built to a furious din, though never an out-of-control one.

Though Sunday’s account of Strauss’s fiendishly difficult score involved moments of tentative attack and spotty ensemble, the quiet spots, by and large, spoke with gripping focus, especially those involving the BPYO’s woodwinds. Additionally, the brass section’s grandest moments—be they the soaring horns at the culmination of “The Hero at Battle” or the work’s radiant final chord—were resplendent.

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at 8 p.m. February 24 at Symphony Hall.

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