A celebratory night at symphony
Benjamin Zander must be in good spirits this week. On Wednesday night in Symphony Hall, he led the Boston Philharmonic in a searing performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, in celebration of the orchestra's 30th anniversary and his own 70th birthday.
The program book was almost as thick as a symphonic score, packed with tributes and encomia admiring the passion he brings to his life's work as a missionary for classical music, recognizing his presence as a pillar in the local musical community, and praising his tireless devotion to young musicians in particular. On stage before the concert he was awarded an honorary doctorate from New England Conservatory, where he has served on the faculty for over 40 years. Mark Churchill, dean of the preparatory division, said Zander was "at the center of the school's personality and its soul."
Zander first came to Boston in 1964 and in 1970 took up the reins of the Civic Symphony. He left in 1978 after clashing with the orchestra's board - and the musicians came with him, founding the Boston Philharmonic one year later. It has always included a diverse group of professionals, students, and amateurs but the years spent together as well as Zander's fiery commitment to every piece he programs have a way of welding the orchestra into a cohesive whole.
The conductor was born and raised in England and has a British gift for silver-tongued oratory, but his parents were émigrés from Germany and he has internalized a historically central European faith in the deep and transformational powers of music. Combine his talents as a communicator with his intense spiritual convictions about the art form and you get a potent advocate for classical music. (His recordings with London's Philharmonia Orchestra, including a forceful account of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony just out on Telarc, come with an entire disc of his spoken commentary on the music.)
Through the years, Zander and the Boston Philharmonic have made Mahler their specialty, so this composer was a natural choice for Wednesday's performance. The Second Symphony in particular has clearly been on Zander's mind as he will record it with the Philharmonia later this month.
Overall, the performance showed the conductor's flair for projecting the architecture of this massive and complex work while at the same time laying bare its expressive contents with a sense of urgency and conviction. The first movement was particularly effective from its initial bars, as the upper strings tore into the opening tremolo and were answered with ferocious intensity by the cellos and basses. Zander clearly elicits tremendous investment from his players and here he put it to the service of driving this music's massive tectonic plates. Climaxes built with a sense of inexorability belied only by the impact of their arrival.
Vivid woodwind playing distinguished the third movement, and oboist Peggy Pearson in particular shone in the fourth. Here Mahler contrasts the violent opening movement with the glowing and tender "Urlicht." Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts sang with an attractively veiled tone if also with a vibrato that was too rapid and tight. The brass delivered where it counted in the epic final movement. The chorus, with singers from both NEC and Tufts University, produced a rich and beautifully blended tone. Ilana Davidson was an able soprano soloist. The ovation, well-deserved, went on and on.