The concert that Benjamin Zander and his Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra gave on Monday at Symphony Hall was not only free, it also was stuffed with music, mostly Russian. The Overture to Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila” was followed by the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Debussy’s “La mer,” and then, after intermission, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Symphony Hall was stuffed as well; a half-hour before the concert was scheduled to start, the line stretched down Huntington Avenue as far as Gainsborough Street.
Zander no sooner took the podium than he plunged into the Glinka, whipping up the orchestra in a colorful, extroverted reading. The Stravinsky was even better, with Zander’s soloist, Ayano Ninomiya, offering an unusually lyric interpretation. She wasn’t sentimental, she conveyed Stravinsky’s mystery and his sly sense of humor, and in the closing Capriccio, she found the dance pulse and had the requisite bag of tricks. She was particularly ravishing at the outset of the two Arias. Zander gave the concerto a shape it doesn’t always get, though there were times when the orchestra covered Ninomiya. Her encore, the “Air on the G String” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, was fresh and individual.
“La mer” is a piece of aural Impressionism. During its three movements, light sparkles on the water, sea birds fly overhead, winds send waves scurrying, clouds roll in, and storms threaten before the sun breaks through again. Here Zander was vibrant and vivid, not as misty as some conductors, but vigorous in pacing and shaping. Precision did not preclude poetry.
The first piece I ever heard Zander conduct, more than 30 years ago, was the Tchaikovsky Fifth, and I remember being impressed by how compact and straightforward that performance was. This one was built along the same lines. The first-movement introduction went at the composer’s requested Andante rather than, as so often, wallowing in Largo self-pity. The main Allegro achieved power without hysteria or histrionics; the phrasing sounded so obvious and natural, Zander hardly seemed to be doing anything. The march tread at the end, measured and steady, was almost spooky.
Some odd balances afflicted the remaining movements, but the same fidelity to Tchaikovsky’s markings prevailed, and the Andante cantabile featured a heartfelt French horn solo from Megan Shusta. And though the playing overall was not as polished as you’d expect from the BSO, these performances, inspired as well as free, would have been worth hearing at BSO prices.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC YOUTH ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Monday