FOCUS ON YOUTH: The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, Music Director

For several decades we have been subjected to claims that the purported absence of young people from classical music audiences portends the extinction of live performances, if not of the genre itself. To remedy such doomsday pronouncements, a focus on youth took hold and young performers were pressed (not unwillingly) into service, in positions sometimes far beyond the level of their experience. It was thought that youthful musicians would attract more young people to concerts, and there has not been a dearth of budding musicians. This presents a strange anomaly: an overflow of young performers and a scarcity of young listeners. The causal presumption that youth attracts youth has simply not panned out.

Then comes on the scene a new youth orchestra that challenges many of the myths about the attraction of classical music to young people. The brilliant conductor, Benjamin Zander, who has a remarkable talent for engaging young people on both sides of the proscenium, was handed the opportunity to create a youth orchestra based upon new and creative ideas of organization, individual involvement, management and performance. Maestro Zander, whose talents as a conductor are enhanced by his enlightened conception of how to inspire and train young musicians, has made a major contribution not only to the development of new performers but of better human beings. Since its formation just four years ago, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra has already established itself as one of the most impressive ensembles of its kind the world over. In fact, during this brief period, the BPYO has given several performances in Boston and at Carnegie Hall and has toured Europe to rave reviews. This is an incredible achievement.

On June 6 and 7, Zander brought the BYPO back to Carnegie Hall to give two free concerts. Yes, I did say “free”! Zander believes that the high price of tickets makes it difficult, even impossible, for young people to attend concerts at major halls. So he convinced a very generous donor to provide the funding and filled the hall with people ofall ages, including a noticeable number of teens and pre-teens. The enthusiasm with which these young people applauded each work (sometimes after every movement) supports Zander’s contention that everyone really likes classical music, but they don’t know it until they hear it!

The June 6 program did not spare the young musicians or the audience by presenting relatively simple and short fare, offering about two hours of music. Zander dashed out for the concert opener, and with a very brief acknowledgement of the audience, immediately jumped into Glinka’s Overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila. Showing off how accomplished these young musicians are, he whipped up the tempo to a near frenzy, and the players came through with flying colors in a rousing performance. They also showed how well they can take on the role of accompanist during Ayano Ninomiya’s impressive reading of Stravinsky’s neo-classical Violin Concerto. Debussy’s La Mer that followed was most compelling. The atmospheric first movement glowed withcoloristic effects while the second was awash in billowing waves of sound. Frenetic intensity gave the final movement a sharp edge. The BPYO musicians displayed virtually flawless playing, often taut and always articulate, and their level of concentration, commitment and energetic fervor, were evident throughout. During the finale of the concluding work, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the brass seemed to wear under the strain, but the overall performance was solid and vibrant. Occasionally, the endings of arched phrases were swallowed, possibly because by some of the players may have reached the limit of their endurance in this fairly lengthy program. Given the likelihood that many members of the audience were attending a classical music concert for the first time, it was heartening that they reacted so enthusiastically to the entire performance, as did all who attended.

The second concert given on the following day, was devoted to three works that relate in one way or another to Spring. Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune was simply gorgeous, with a lovely flute solo by Carlos Aguilar and an exquisitely exotic closing section. Then Zander and the BPYO conjoined two works probably never performed in the same concert: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Mahler’s First Symphony; each extraordinarily challenging works for a youth orchestra. Zander elicitedan exceptionally dramatic and technically skillful performance of The Rite, putting the ensemble through its paces during the metrically and rhythmically difficult passages in the concluding dances of Parts I and II. Combining amazing technical skill with characterful playing, the BPYO showed how much can be done with a dedicated group of young musicians under the direction of a master who has the experience and know-how to elicit a top-drawer performance from his players.

Much the same can be said of the Mahler First. But here Zander’s impressed as well by his attending to score details, such as reinforced accents, and energizing the orchestra when it might well have run out of steam. During the closing peroration, Zander adheredto Mahler’s directions to put some weight on the second part of the heroic theme during the passage marked “Triumphal” (the core of the entire symphony), which lasts for 60 bars! Few conductors heed this vital marking, choosing to maintain the previous tempo and thereby undercutting the dramatic effect Mahler sought to convey. The result was stupendous! Rising to their feet, the audience exploded with animated applause. From Carnegie the Zander brings the BPYO on a tour of Spain. This is not their first venture in Europe, where their performances have already met with great success. It is
a tribute to Maestro Zander and his young musicians that they have accomplished so much in a short time. Their impact on the resolving the “youth” issue has already borne fruit. We wish them continued success in their estimable mission to revitalize the interest of young people in classical music.

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