Viennese Critics Praise American Youth Orchestra
By Maurice Faulkner
When the tough Viennese music critics attend a concert given by an amateur orchestra and then use such phrases as, "Bravo für ein Jugendorchester!" in the Wiener Zeitung and "Thus could Mahler's Fourth Symphony truly vibrate with its passion and pathos…" in the Kronen Zeitung, the performers realize that they have arrived at the peak of perfection, at least as far as the Viennese are concerned. For these are some of the same critics who recently reviewed two Philadelphia Orchestra concerts in the same concert hall with such phrases as, "many notes, but little music!" As an American, it was a pleasure to read the Kronen critic's prediction that "these musicians would soon supply the rising generation of a great orchestra!"
The New England Conservatory Preparatory School Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander conducting, astonished the Viennese with its extraordinary performances of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony and Mahler's Symphony No. 4. To bring Vienna's favorite composers back to that city took a great deal of courage. When the Mahler work ended, though, the audience rose to its feet and shouted its approval. There were numerous curtain calls for the conductor and the soloist, a boy soprano who sang the words from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" in the fourth movement with such delicacy and accuracy that the Kronen critic called it a "true heavenly joy." The beautiful "Golden Concert Hall" of the Musikverein where Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, and many other famous composers and conductors have worked, served as the backdrop for this ensemble made up primarily of high school students. The Viennese Beckmessers praised the sensitivity and intelligence with which the youngsters performed, writing, "I don't know which, in the slow movement [of the Mahler], was more beautiful: the music or the stirring emotional faces of these children; for the exemplary, intensive musical result, they deserve the most enthusiastic praise, together with their conductor."
Indeed, conductor Zander is extraordinary in his own right. Born in London, the son of a musical father who had performed under Arthur Nikisch in Germany, Zander studied cello as a youth with Pablo Casals. From that auspicious beginning he turned to performing chamber music, conducting, composing, and teaching. Zander now conducts the New England Conservatory orchestra and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. As recent project has been to form the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. If, with his new group, Zander matches the accomplishments of the Youth Orchestra, the Philharmonic will soon give Ozawa and the Boston Symphony a run for their money.
What does one say about the kind of genius that can produce genius in others? Zander is a great teacher and a fine conductor who in Vienna proved that he understands the music of the master composers. The string players may have learned from their teachers to perform all manner of bowing strokes with well-timed professional ease, but it was the conductor who drew on their skill to bring out the delicacies of Mozart and Mahler. The delightful spiccato at the point, in the middle of the bow, and at the more difficult lower half of the bow proved that these players were not overnight wonders but thoroughly trained young professionals.
Brasses maintained superb balance with woodwinds and strings, and wind soloists produced lovely sonorities with the artistry of top-flight professionals. Space unfortunately does not permit me to list the names of the solo horn, solo trumpet, solo oboe, English horn, solo clarinet, solo bassoon, and solo flute, all of whom were applauded as they took bows. Accurate intonation throughout both works, exquisite pianissimos, dramatic fortissimos, and sensitive rubatos in the Mahler along with bright, fast tempos in the Mozart, were all put together in a well-conceived display of musicality. Over the last two decades I have heard noted youth orchestras in the United States, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan, yet seldom have I experienced such interpretative genius as in this performance. Some conductors will be fortunate in the future to find these players in their orchestras.
As I enjoyed the American orchestra's success, I couldn't help but recall what Wagner had written about conducting: "The orchestras can play beautiful pianissimos and sonorous fortissimos if someone will insist on it!" Zander produced just such extraordinary results. Recently the tough Viennese critics showed such dissatisfaction with Lorin Maazel as the director of the Vienna State Opera that he resigned before his contract expired. When they heard this group of Americans in the Musikverein, though, they went away with tears in their eyes from the beautiful music-making.