The onset of the pandemic forced many classical music organizations to take the plunge into the digital present, embracing technologies for streaming and placing their own archives online. With concert life now returned, those digital investments have proven to be a boon for local groups that can now reach potential listeners not just a few zip codes away but on the other side of the globe.
Less discussed in the era of classical streaming, however, has been the technology’s impact on how careers are made. The 24-year-old cellist Hayoung Choi, for instance, lives in Germany and has begun making her way up the ranks. This year she took first prize in Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition and, as it happened, the conductor Benjamin Zander caught her June 14 performance of the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto online. He found it utterly mesmerizing.
Fast-forward five months, and there was Choi taking the stage of Symphony Hall Saturday night to perform with the Boston Philharmonic at Zander’s invitation. She was not here, alas, to reprise her impressive account of the Lutoslawski Concerto. It would have been interesting to consider that repertoire for this weekend’s appearance, her US professional debut. As an exceptionally theatrical work of the 1970s Polish avant-garde, the Lutoslawski is the kind of score that can instantly distinguish a young soloist from the pack.
Choi instead introduced herself through a more tried-and-true route with its own grand tradition, the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Its advantages are clear: No other concerto can match the Dvorak’s combination of rhapsodic intensity and big-hearted songfulness, and the opportunities it provides for virtuoso expression in the traditional mold are unparalleled. On the other hand, given this beloved work’s sheer popularity, it can be difficult for a musician of any age, let alone a rising young player, to place a truly individual stamp on it.
All of that said, considerations of this nature, of course, quickly slipped from mind on Saturday as Zander and his orchestra gave a purposeful account of the extended introduction and Choi made her declarative first entrances, then gradually waded into the work’s deep currents of lyricism.
Most of her approach felt beautifully tailored to the work’s many moods and characters, with a sense of ardency that was counterbalanced by a seemingly natural feel for the music’s elevated moments of lyric nobility. Her interpretation has room to deepen but is already imbued with a keen sensitivity. She approached the long-arching melodies of the slow movement with poise and tonal warmth, and the finale, it seemed, with pure adrenaline. As an encore, Choi held the stage with the “Intermezzo e Danza Finale” from the Suite for Solo Cello by Gaspar Cassadó, an engaging work and a welcome tribute to the distinguished Catalan cellist who was also Zander’s own cello teacher.
After intermission, the orchestra honored Zander’s 50 years as a conductor and educator in Boston, an occasion also noted in citations from the governor and the mayor reproduced in the program. The vehicle of celebration was Brahms’s halcyon Second Symphony, the first work he led back in 1972. Zander seemed inspired by the occasion, leading with a particular expansiveness of gesture, and the orchestra responded by infusing its playing with a noted energy and rhythmic elan. There were a few misadventures from the brass but the woodwind solos drifted into the hall with an authentically Brahmsian sense of grace, and the finale, boldly profiled and full of driving tempos, brought the crowd in Symphony Hall swiftly to its feet.
Benjamin Zander, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Nov. 12