Saturday, March 16, 2013's all about listening....

Arrived in Boston this week and have already been blest by great weather (expectations aside) and an exciting concert experience: 17 year old pianist George Li (who is rapidly assuming superstar status nationwide and abroad) performed the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra under its renowned  conductor, educator, author and motivational speaker, Benjamin Zander.

It was gratifying that a young pianist with such "technique to burn" would choose to perform a less "flashy" and more poetic work like the Schumann. Mr Li, a recent winner of the Young Concerts Artists prize definitely does possess a maturity of approach and performance well beyond his years. His interpretation of the Schumann was placed strongly on the more straightforward,  masculine end of the spectrum for this popular work. There were times I wished for more variety in his use of tone colors or phrase shapes/destinations, and I hope that in time he will become more sensitive to the nuances of harmonic colors or key changes, and their role in defining what makes any individual piece of music unique. But having said all of that, Mr. Li's performance of the first movement cadenza was possibly the best I have ever heard.

His humility (during numerous bows before a hometown crowd in a standing ovation) was gratifying to observe, and his performance of a slow, poetic Chopin encore was absolutely spellbinding and masterful. It had all of the tone colors and nuances that I had wished to hear a bit more of in the Schumann, so perhaps this confirms that his (or his teacher's) view of the Schumann is more "classical" than "romantic" and he perhaps chose deliberately a rather Bach-like robustness. This school of thought definitely exists, but having performed the work myself around the world and coached it in masterclasses of maybe 14 or so music conservatories, my own personal belief is that without a more sensitive alternation of gentleness, light and phrase destinations, the Schumann concerto can get very repetitive in some passages despite its greatness.

For the second half of the ambitious (and long!!!) three hour program, the BPYO was joined by assembled choirs and two internationally known vocal soloists, to perform Mahler's Symphony No2, "The Resurrection".
I was surprised by several things. First of all, the choice of soloists. To quote the BYPO's own program notes by David St George: "Mahler specifically stipulated that the singer of this song ["Urlicht"] use "the tone and vocal expression of a child who thinks he is in heaven". There was nothing inherently wrong with the vocal soloist(s) but those booked for this performance had very heavy vibratos and very "angst" ridden emotional portrayals that most definitely did not sound either childlike or heavenlike. So it simply seemed an odd choice of soloists if one wanted to follow Mahler's wishes.
The second surprise was the program itself - combining a very long Mahler symphony (which can often suffice as a complete concert program all in its own right) with a relatively long piano concerto.
Youth orchestras don't often play complete Mahler Symphonies, but especially not immediately following a performance of the orchestral parts of the Schumann Piano Concerto - which the BYPO players did to a very high standard indeed. So it was astounding that they had the physical stamina, let alone the mental or musical concentration, to continue with this lengthy and powerful Mahler symphony. The results were (rather understandably) uneven, but there many great moments, as well -  and I kept thinking how fortunate these young talented players were, to have this perhaps life-changing experience of learning and performing the Mahler 2nd, live, at such a young age.

And for the audience members as well - judging from mistimed applause that interrupted or rattled the young performers at times, it seemed that for a fair proportion of the audience of relatives and friends, this was perhaps also their first time experiencing this monumental work. So it was exciting to be there in the midst of it all, like witnessing a child's first taste of ice cream or an adult's first sight of the ocean. A young woman (maybe 19 or 20?) next to me was fidgeting constantly, flipping the pages of her program instead of reading it, while her boyfriend (?) next to her was totally rapt and obviously knew players on the stage - one could see him sort of vacillating between feeling sorry for his bored companion, or feeling regret for bringing her if she couldn't share his enthusiasm, or wishing he could find a way to help this powerful work to enter and engage her spirit. The Mahler 2nd has an undeniable power that sweeps all audiences to their feet, and this performance, especially by such young and exhausted players, was (almost) no exception.....with the one hold-out being that same young female next to me. She had the honesty to remain seated as a testimony to her bewilderment or boredom or dislike or all of the above. And I am sure Mahler would have approved of that honesty too.

An internationally known musician sat to my left, and her first comment afterwards was how much she would dearly love to create some serious cuts/edits in the Mahler 2nd, saying that orchestral musicians often discuss how amenable this particular work is for finding some relatively easy cuts without damaging the power or the overall message, due to its harmonic structure and repeated thematic segments. (Takers, anyone? ) Shortening the work would obviously make it less taxing to perform, whether by youth or experienced professionals. But the BYPO musicians did a very creditable job technically, with special kudos going to the cellos, the concert mistress, and the confident brass, horns, and woodwinds.

The main surprise we (the musician to my left and I) had both noticed was that none of the players seemed to be trained to focus on listening to each other as an absolute first priority of being an orchestral musician. Each section played its solo or part in its own rhythm and mood without any apparent understanding of how it fit into the whole or how it then dovetailed or answered a previous phrase played by another section. It could be that this was simply a symptom of the number of rehearsals a massive work like the Mahler would have required, and they needed to focus on technical and ensemble issues in the weeks that they had till performance day. One could tell that they all loved and trusted their conductor Maestro Zander to be the chef, take their individually prepared ingredients, and then produce the completed cake. But the BYPO is a tremendous youth orchestra and it can only get better, so one shares this suggestion in a positive way - listening to each other is a habit built in the first moments of the first rehearsal of any new work, whether easy or difficult, and it has to be insisted on and demanded by all beloved conductors. Training orchestras that succeed most in this one specific aspect - like the Shepherd School of Music orchestra at Rice under Larry Rachleff - are renowned for producing the top orchestral players of the next generation and the most riveting, "together" performances of any piece, by any age of players.

But back to the concert at hand - the gorgeous, elegant ambiance of Boston's Symphony Hall added to the "special-ness" of the occasion, and it is difficult to say whether the principal star was the pianist George Li or the courageous and generous players of this technically excellent orchestra in such a challenging program. The packed hall was full of truly ecstatic and inspired music listeners, and I heard several different audience members commenting as they departed that it was the best concert of the BYPO - and indeed of any they had attended anywhere -  in a very long time. In retrospect, it is really all about listening....the players listening to each other, audience members listening to something for the first time, a young but mature piano soloist inviting us to listen to every note as if it was a is special that way...and it's all about listening for the life and the message that lies within.


  1. Hi,
    I read your blog. Wish I could have seen the concert, and I would not have fidgeted.

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