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August 10, 2009

Benjamin Zander, Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the art of music-making

Benjamin ZanderThe 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.



Posted by Tim Smith at 8:20 AM | | Comments (7)


What do you think the result would be if the NSO or BSO engaged Zander for a subscription concert?

I understand that symphony managements think Zander is something of a well intentioned parlor trick and don't consider him for normal seasonal concerts.

How do you think he'd come off in a normal context with a professional orchestra?

Judging by the recordings he has made with the Philharmonia in London, I'd say he's already had considerable success in what you call a "normal context." He has also enjoyed many guest engagements with major orchestras. I know the pros can be suspicious of him (of anyone who comes from left field), but I can't imagine there wouldn't be a spark at the BSO or NSO, especially if he could come in for a couple weeks in a row. And let me add: I find your description of Zander's reputation among management circles suspect. TIM

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see him with the NSO or BSO -- I think it would be fascinating and rewarding to be at those concerts.

My description comes from a handful of articles I have read about him over the past 4-5 years, in US and UK papers I think, that all mentioned that he has had a hard time being considered a "normal guest conductor" by many major orchestras. They apparently see him as more of an "acquired taste".

A lack of vision, as you know, is quite common in the orchestra biz. Maybe one of our local ensembles will get wise to the Zander magic soon. Better late than never. TIM

Zander is anything _but_ a "parlor trick," and I consider the tone of any article which makes that suggestion to be an absolute insult to the man. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the writers are more interested in inventing fiction than stating fact. (Yeah, I've become a Zander fanboy, but with what I perceive to be very good cause. ;^)

A _few_ British critics, in particular, often draw strange conclusions about a number of things; they can disparage viciously where subtle praise may be due, and they will foam at the mouth in glorification when the reality is far more earth-bound. Some select American critics follow their lead, for some odd reason... (For the wrong-headed perception of prestige in agreeing with the English? London _is_ one of the most fabulous centers of world culture, but it's definitely _not_ the final word.)

In truth, the "classical" establishment needs _more_ Benjamin Zanders, because he's both informative _and_ engaging with the repertoire he explores. He's "audience friendly" without "dumbing down" the music, so some people with their noses in the air see that as "selling out." (And Zander is the opposite of someone like Gilbert Kaplan, who truly is a dilettante -- though Mr. Kaplan has received more scorn than he is due, especially from musicians, who can -- and will -- be overly harsh on anyone "invading" from outside of their sphere.)

"Lack of vision" indeed! Maybe even,"They've got their blinders on." Of course, this is endemic to far more than just the orchestra biz. ;^)

Finally, a personal word about Beethoven interpretation: the HIP movement should be seen as a supplemental "revisionist" approach to music-making -- certainly valid (and I appreciate that very much), but _not_, in any way, "gospel." My first exposure to Beethoven's symphonies came from Bruno Walter's recordings, and my first symphony was, in fact, his studio recording of the 5th. 100 or so recordings later, I still find _that_ recording to be my absolute favourite. It's solid and meaty like a Bruckner symphony, yet it soars up and through the air like a starship. People (read: titans) like Walter, Erich Kleiber, Felix Weingartner, and Furtwängler are the masters who bequeathed to posterity some of the greatest recorded Beethoven performances -- no one needs to make _any_ sort of "apologies" for their sublime efforts, regardless of how much the results may differ from highly-educated HIP practice. (No offence intended to Roger Norrington, John Gardiner, or even David Zinman, but I'll still take that Walter over their various efforts any day.)

Hear, hear. TIM

I thought your review of this concert was much more accurate (by my lights) than the churlish one in the Washington Post. However, isn't that aria from "Don Giovanni"?

Yikes. Of course it is. Thanks. Correction on the way. (I've got to get more sleep.)

I would love to know what the "farewell piece" was after Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" -- lush strings as if you could feel if not see the woven tapestry. Can anyone tell me?

It was the Nimrod Variation from Elgar's Enigma Variations.
Nimrod was the God of the Hunt. Elgar wrote the piece as a portrait of his beloved friend Jaeger (which is German for hunter).
Jaeger was a very educated and musically sophisticated man, who had a special love for late Beethoven. I love your description of the woven tapestry! It is one of the most beautiful 4 minutes in the entire canon of Western music - it was played at Princess Diana's Memorial Service in New York as it is at many deeply moving occasions.
It is played at the end of the last concert each year of my New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic. There are usually very few dry eyes on either side of the footlights as the youngsters say farewell to their friends and their youth.

Now I'm really kicking myself for not staying for all the encores, as 'Nimord' is right up there with my all time favorite pieces of music, and your approach to the score, I am certain, would be sublime. Many thanks for posting. (Sorry for the delay in getting this up on the blog, as I have been attending a conference in NY and have been away from a computer much of the time.) TIM

I might mention to Rudy that if he checks out my Beethoven 5th on Telarc with The Philharmonia, he might find it offers a viable alternative to the Walter approach.
It also has a full disc explanation of how the traditions arose, including the bad habit of starting the second movement slowly and speeding up each variation, instead of letting the speeding up of the note values speak for itself.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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