CAMBRIDGE - At Sanders Theatre on Thursday night, Benjamin Zander made a musically focused, notably apolitical return to the podium of his Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the embattled conductor’s first BPO performance since his dismissal last month by New England Conservatory, his main professional home for over four decades.
The Boston Philharmonic has of course been this conductor’s second home since he founded the orchestra in 1979. In last night’s “Discovery Series’’ concert, Zander seemed keen to keep his two worlds separated, and while he spoke from the podium at length about the two selected works on the program - Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, and Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben’’ - he did not say a word about the controversy of recent weeks.
Zander’s abrupt firing meanwhile continues to roil Boston’s musical community, with almost 900 names collected on an online petition calling for his reinstatement, among them some of the city’s most prominent musical citizens such as composer John Harbison and Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff. The scandal is clearly not going away anytime soon.
Still, Zander on Thursday night evidently deemed it best to focus on the music at hand, and on delivering one of his signature musical tours of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto. Approached cold, the piece’s aleatoric elements and late-1960s avant-garde touches have the potential to alienate the broad, non-specialist audiences this series aims to attract. But Zander’s spoken comments, with examples played by the orchestra, seemed to equip listeners with everything they needed: a bit of historical background on Lutoslawski, a few musical signposts from the score, and a larger rhetorical narrative. (Zander essentially framed the piece as an extended confrontation between the individual soul, represented by the solo cello, and a brutal faceless collective, represented by the orchestra.)
Of course it’s all just words without the performance to bring them meaning, but cello soloist Alexander Baillie and the orchestra stepped up to deliver some of the most absorbing playing I’ve heard from this group in some time. Baillie has championed the piece widely and his account made you believe in its importance. The orchestra, still finding its way at moments, nonetheless dug into the score’s visceral dissonances, its queasy glissandi, and its strange extraterrestrial soundscapes. Zander shaped the work toward a scorching dramatic climax, capped by Baillie’s final string of piercing high A’s.
After intermission “Ein Heldenleben’’ received a more uneven performance, with plenty of orchestral fervor but also many passages in need of clearer shaping and at times more horizontal sweep.