Benjamin Zander, Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the art of music-making
The cult status of Boston-based conductor Benjamin Zander is easy enough to understand from his recordings, which reflect an intensely involved and involving style of music-making. It was even more rewarding to experience Zander in person Friday night in a summer treat presented by Strathmore and the Washington Performing Arts Society, leading the vibrant Youth Orchestra of the Americas.
It's not every day that you get to hear something new and startling in a work as familiar as Beethoven's Fifth, so Zander's refreshing way with that war horse was alone worth the trip to Bethesda. The whole concert proved enjoyable, for that matter.
The orchestra, comprised of players competitively chosen from South and North America, ages 18-28, is as dynamic and fundamentally strong in technique as you would expect. Even allowing for the occasional signs of tiredness on Friday (Zander told the audience the musicians had been on a 17-hour bus ride to get there), the playing had admirable cohesion, solidity and warmth of tone, rich expressive nuance. It was great to encounter an ensemble that could make so much out of a quick change in dynamics or give a melodic line extra depth with a beautifully coordinated surge of lyricism.
The evening opened with ...
Bernstein's Candide Overture, which Zander took at a slightly slower clip than I think is ideal, but that allowed the prettiest tunes to bloom nicely.
Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 proved more interesting orchestrally than keyboard-wise, since soloist Gabriela Montero did not produce much in the way of tonal variety and relied on velocity more than poetry to make interpretive points. Nonetheless, her lightning flashes of technique in the finale were certainly impressive, even when the notes burred into a haze. Zander drew out the orchestral coloring in the score to keen effect and, in the finale, he ensured that each statement of that movement's big, grand tune had its own characteristic.
Montero delighted the crowd, as she invariably does, and Zander encouraged her to offer encores in the form of her signature improvisations on themes shouted out by listeners. (Earlier this season, the pianist gave an all-improvised recital in Baltimore, so my interest level in hearing more was, I admit, no doubt a little low.) She delivered animated variations on La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni (Note: This corrects an earlier, careless error on my part) and Ravel's Bolero, in each case using a small melodic fragment. The Mozart item found her heading off into stylistic sweeps through the likes of Bach and Rachmaninoff; Piazzolla was the dominant force in the Ravel. All entertaining, but I was anxious to get to the post-intermission action.
Zander tore into Beethoven's Fifth with a vengeance. It wasn't just that he was determined to honor the composer's very fast metronome markings, which so many conductors are reluctant to do (or find suspect). As the proponents of period instrument performance practice demonstrated years ago, taking things at Beethoven's intended clip doesn't automatically a satisfying performance make. Zander got his young, eager players to celebrate the liberating force of those tempos, to infuse each measure with import and impact.
I readily confess that I still love the early 20th century style of elongating phrases in this work, especially for the iconic principal theme of the first movement, and inserting grand pauses or taking wild ritards to make a point. The Beethoven of Furtwangler is, to me, an essentially valid approach, however far removed from reality. (Hey, I'm all for getting away from reality -- legally -- whenever I can.) That said, Zander's faithfulness to the composer is as impressive as the sense of spontaneity and drama he can unleash.
Friday's performance made it possible to appreciate, as if for the first time, just how revolutionary a symphony the Fifth is, how daring the construction, and, yes, how startling the tempos. When for example, the Youth Orchestra's basses positively flew through the trio section of the scherzo, it was like a wild, musical joy ride.
Again, if it were only a matter of being fast, the performance would not have amounted to so much. It was the intensity, the passion in the players' response to Zander's bold guidance that delivered such a rewarding jolt, and such a memorable reminder of Beethoven's life-affirming symphony.
PHOTO BY STEVE J. SHERMAN COURTESY OF WASHINGTON PERFORMING ARTS SOCIETY