Thursday, October 20, 2011

Zander's grandeur

The Boston Philharmonic

Last weekend's season opener from Ben Zander's Boston Philharmonic proved full of surprises (even its press reception was a bit shocking) - and thus it provided a pretty good sense of both the orchestra's core strength and its unusual range.

It's true that everything on the program came from the period with which the Philharmonic is closely identified - the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when orchestral size was approaching its zenith, and romantic (and post-romantic) musical gestures were correspondingly titanic.  And all, btw, came from Northern Europe (that is if you count Russia as part of Northern Europe).  Beyond that superficial similarity, however, the choices were strikingly divergent.  Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela is an elegiac tone poem, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto an expansive, dancing rapture; and Neilsen's Fourth Symphony ("The Inextinguishable") a super-sized allegory of war.

Yet in all three categories, the Philharmonic came through with colors flying.  Some tend to think of Zander as a grand rhetorician, but his Sibelius belied that stereotype; subtly rendered, the piece's eponymous swan (given exquisite voice by Peggy Pearson on English horn) floated with just the right edge of romantic dread through a mist of shimmering strings, occasionally broken by mournful solos from star cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer.

Then the orchestra seemed to slip easily into the lively passions of the Tchaikovsky concerto.  Violinist Ilya Kaler. the soloist, is little known in these parts; his only previous local appearance - that I can think of - was with the Philharmonic itself last season. Zander asked him to return immediately, and it was soon obvious why.  The Russian Kaler has a kind of lightly muscular - perhaps the better word is wiry - sound that taps into a folk idiom we sometimes forget often underpins Tchaikovsky.  His is not a particularly singing line, but he brought the Concerto's romping third movement to a wickedly dancing conclusion.  (You can judge for yourself from a video of the young Kaler performing the same piece, below.)  I was surprised to discover that the Globe's Jeremy Eichler described this interpretation - which he saw in the first concert of the run (I saw the last) - as far too slow; unless the violinist suddenly speeded up his tempo, I find that claim bizarre.  Eichler also took time out to describe Kaler as "ursine."  Nice!  I've often felt the Globe's lead critic doesn't much care for music with hair on its chest - but I guess I just do!

A younger Ilya Kaler plays Tchaikovsky. Jeremy Eichler thinks this is waay too slow.

The concert concluded with Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony ("The Inextinguishable"), which my companion aptly described as "Zander-bait." The Nielsen Fourth is big, and loud, and has a soaring theme - the human spirit in time of war (it was composed during the dark years of the First World War, which Nielsen himself watched from the neutral precincts of Denmark). I confess I'm often slightly amused by this kind of thing - classical fans who smile at obvious program music (and Nielsen himself professed to hate it) always seem to go gaga if the composer changes his program from "the dying swan" to "the human spirit." And I wasn't completely convinced by the Fourth (admittedly, this is my first time through it live); it's over-complicated tonally without ever getting really interesting, and I feel there's a good deal of high-minded filler in it, too (of the "Will Mankind prevail??? Noooo - YES!!!" variety).

Still, you can't deny the Fourth is often effective in its idealistic passion - the opening movement sounds like a frenzied Brahms slowly cracking up, and there's a famous duel for timpani in the finale that shakes you like the artillery then blowing Europe apart; the soaring coda at the last moment is truly moving, too. And Zander, always a great shaper of large forces, kept the orchestra gloriously coherent throughout - with particular praise due to those convulsive timpanists, Edward Meltzer and Hans Morrison. Sometimes you can leave a concert unconvinced but still admiring, and that's how I left Zander's Nielsen that evening.

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