The 117 players of Benjamin Zander’s new Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, ranging in age from 12 to 21, come from all over New England, and they packed the Symphony Hall stage Sunday. But Zander’s gift for getting clarity from large ensembles was evident from the opening piece, Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture. The performance alternated dramatic outbursts and heroic sentiment, with precise attacks from the strings and no insecurity from the winds and brass when they were exposed.
The Elgar Cello Concerto followed, with Venezuelan guest conductor Rafael Payare and American Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. Weilerstein is an intense player who coaxes and caresses her instrument, and she gets from it a firm, focused tone and a rich singing line.
Payare and the orchestra seemed to follow her lead in a reading that was autumnal but gave no hint of farewell. Apart from, in the final movement, some overenthusiastic contributions from brass and percussion, the accompaniment was not inferior to the one Weilerstein received from Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin on her just-released Decca recording of the concerto.
After intermission, Zander returned to the podium for Richard Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben,” the story of a hero’s life where the hero turns out to be Strauss himself, as he battles with his critics, finds his “companion” (clearly Strauss’s wife, Pauline), and revisits past compositions.
Zander recorded this work with the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra in 2001; Sunday’s performance was at least the equal of that one. Complex and potentially chaotic, the piece can easily clot and turn murky, but Zander gave it plenty of air, and the six movements had shape and color and a plush sound.
The cellos, which at the outset have the composer’s theme, were a powerful presence; the winds, representing music critics, snarled ferociously; the offstage trumpets that kick off the battle movement were perfectly judged.
Hikaru Yonezaki played the violin solos, in which Strauss depicts the hero’s companion, with a silky tone and compact phrasing even at slow speed. Toward the end she became almost mystical, as if anticipating the composer’s “Four Last Songs” a half-century later.
History does repeat itself. In 1978, Zander was fired from his position as music director of the Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston. The following year, he founded his own orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic. This past January, after more than four decades as a faculty member at NEC, Zander was fired from that institution and from his position as director of its top youth orchestra. Once again, he founded his own ensemble, and its debut was spectacular in every way.