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Zander elicits electrifying program

Susan Larsen, Boston Globe

Tuesday, October 17, 1995

Benjamin Zander, conductor

At: Sanders Theatre, Sunday afternoon

CAMBRIDGE The Boston Philharmonic and its conductor, Benjamin Zander, are renowned for intense explorations of Mahler's existential angst and Beethoven's cosmic drama; but for this season's opening concert Zander Chose music that is "all surface, all playful and understated." Can Zander really lighten up?

Each piece he chose has dazzling orchestrations, witty parodies and "a certain coolness." But there was nothing trivial or cute about this concert. Zander knows how to get the guts of the music, even in high-gloss repertoire.

John Harbison is in the process of setting F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" as an opera. Harbison's terse sketch, "Remembering Gatsby", alternates between clenched, gristly block chords and a perfect ricky-tick fox trot, beneath which trombones moan with a terrible longing and automobile horns turn into horrible screams. The orchestra, sounding upscale and glitzy, let neither the enameled brainlessness of the dance nor the anguish around it escape our notice.

Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto begins with a quote from "Petrushka", and, like "Gatsby", it uses jazz themes. The extraordinary pianist Stephen Drury speaks from a deep and sophisticated understanding of harmony, with a rich panoply of touch and color. The orchestra continued to sound smashing, lustrous in tone and crackling with rhythmic energy.

Drury played the second movement's peregrinating tune without a drop of sentimentality; consequently it was unspeakably moving. The audience went dead quiet as the lovely wind trio and strings slid into Drury's soliloquy. After Ronald Kaye's poignant English horn solo, serenly deocrated by Drury, breathing resumed with a blissful communal sigh. Drury's finale was wickedly fast, flirting with disaster. All honor to Jonathan MacGowan, bassoon, and the violins for nailing the perpetual-motion theme at that whirlwind tempo. The stampede to the final cadence was so electrifying that it ejected the audience shouting from their seats.

Zander says that Stravinsky's first mature work, the ballet "Petrushka", which premiered in 1911, "started a musical revolution that turned the world on its ear." Now standard fare for all orchestras, it seems as miraculous and audacious as ever. The Philharmonic sounded icy-clear and bright; tuttis knocked you over with glamour, and small vignettes were boldly drawn.

Zander and the orchestra were alive in every measure as storytellers and scene-painters, reciting the swirling, madcap joys and virulent nastiness of "Petrushka" with searing intensity and sharply focused gesture. The winds' shimmering ostinati, the glinting edge of the concerted brass, Kathleen Boyd's flute incantation and the trumpet solos of Jeffrey Work were especially delicious; but the whole performance left you feeling as though you had been struck by lightning dazzled, with all your molecules rearranged.


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