New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra
Benjamin Zander, music director and conductor of the New England Conservatory
Youth Philharmonic orchestra for 21 years, claims he is not especially
interested in youth orchestras as such. "I'm interested in great
music-making",says Zander. "And some of the best music I'm involved
with happens to be with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra." Zander maintains
that the 85 teenagers of the YPO are not only musically accomplished but also
possess a level of joy and enthusiasm that is not always found among adult
Such praise is echoed by concertgoers and critics alike. "Close your
eyes, and it's easy to forget they're not professionals",says The Boston
Globe. Zander likes to tell of a blindfold test he conducted with three CDs of
major orchestras and a recording of the YPO: the YPO recording was rated
superior by a group of knowledgeable musicians.
Why does this group of 12- to 18-yearolds play so well? Partly, says Zander,
because they can. Music, unlike other artistic, athletic, or intellectual
activities, is a pursuit in which children can sound like adults. "What
children may lack in sophistication, they make up for with passion, enthusiasm,
and flexibility",he says.
Furthermore, the musicians of the YPO take the time needed to play their
best. A professional orchestra may rehearse only days for a performance; Zander
works with the YPO every Saturday for several months before their three annual
concerts at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. With such generous rehearsal
time, "I can explore my musical vision just as well sometimes better than I
can with a professional orchestra",says Zander. For the unusual
interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony on this CD, for example, he was
able to coach the orchestra to play with rubato, an elasticity of timing that
frees the vocal line.
Then there's the training. The YPO is the senior of six orchestras in the New
England Conservatory Preparatory School, NEC's pre-college division, which is
directed by Mark Churchill. The high level of teaching at the Preparatory School
guarantees a pool of virtuosic young musicians to fill the YPO's ranks. Students
receive intensive private lessons and a complete music education program
conducted by some of Boston's finest musician-teachers.
Finally, the orchestra's bi-annual tours have been a major component of the
YPO's success for more than a decade. The rigors of touring, of playing the same
concert throughout a two week period, fuses this international mosaic of
musicians into a single musical unit. "They own the music by the end of the
trip, they really live it on stage",says Mark Churchill. Previous tours
have taken the ensemble to Austria, Poland, Russia, Romania, Israel, South
Korea, Taiwan, and Spain, often at the invitation and financial sponsorship of
the host countries' governments and corporations.
The YPO's most recent tour was a highly successful [rip to Chile in June
1993. Invited by Chilean President Patricio Aylwin, the orchestra played nine
concerts to sold-out houses in seven cities; it received glowing reviews from
several national newspapers: "This extremely talented young group creates
sparks and transmits to the audience both the spirit and the essence of the
music they per
form",said El Mercurio, the nation's major daily. A camera crew from
Boston's WGBH-TV accompanied the tour to create two hour-long documentaries for
the Public Broadcasting System about the trip.
This CD was recorded at Santiago's elegant Teatro Municipal during the tour's
final, triumphant concert. President Aylwin led the lengthy standing ovation
that prompted several encores. By the time the orchestra finished Elgar's
bittersweet "Nimrod" Variation, there was barely a dry eye in the
audience - or on the stage. "These kids don't just play. They play as if
their lives depend on it",says Zander.
by Beth Potier
Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila Mikhail J, Glinka
The history of Russian "art" music does not extend back very far. At
the beginning of the last century, Russian music was polarized between a
liturgical tradition of considerable antiquity and the various folk musics that
proliferated in the Slavic countries. It was in the wake of Napoleon's initial
subjugation of the Russian armies and then the spectacular, frosty debacle of
1812 that Russian nationalism was born, and with it a national music and
It was into this turbulent climate, first of war and then of a nation's
struggle to find its own artistic voice, that Mikhail Glinka was born in 1804.
His restless highly unconventional life led him into a confrontation with the
European mainstream from which serious Russian music was born. The initial
impetus to his genius was his first trip to Italy when he was in his
mid-twenties. Intoxicated by the sensuous abandon of Italian opera, he absorbed
the style as best he could and tried to imitate its gestures in his own music.
It was only later that he confessed his failure, in a statement that reveals
much about him and about the Russian temperament. "It cost me some pain to
counterfeit the Italian sentimento brillante. . . With us, things either make no
impression at all, or they sink deep into the soul; it is either a frenzy of joy
or bitter tears. With us, love is inseparable from sorrow." A remarkable
statement, which seems to cast a glance over the whole of the Russian artistic
tradition, yet which was made when that tradition was just barely nascent.
The opera Ruslan and Ludmila is Glinka's masterpiece. Here Glinka's brilliant
mingling of intense nationalism with a very cosmopolitan sense of German, French
and Italian artistic tendencies is heard in its most subtle balance. His debt to
the early German Romantic movement is enormous, particularly to Weber
(unmistakable, yet freshly minted, in many passages of the Overture). For the
next hundred years composers in Russia were to continue to return to Ruslan and
Ludmila, mining it for its novel ideas of orchestration, of harmony, of form,
and making of it the bedrock of a national style. How wonderful it would be if
more people in the West would go beyond the exuberant, irrepressible Overture to
appreciate the whole of this marvelous opera.
Symphony No, 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
The Russian penchant for extremes of feeling, which Glinka alluded to in the
above quoted letter, reaches its apogee in the music of Tchaikovsky - and
nowhere more so than in the heart-on-sleeve Fifth Symphony. To accuse the
symphony of excess, however, is merely to characterize it, not to criticize it.
As in Glinka's statement about the Russian spirit, this symphony will brook no
half-measures. Its supersaturated orchestration is excessive, as is its extreme
emotionalism and its tendency to love a theme to death rather than develop it.
It is true that with Tchaikovsky the themes themselves, frequently repeated
and only slightly decorated and altered, are the pillars propping up his
symphonic structures, in contrast to the developmental processes that lie at the
heart of the great Viennese classics. But Russian art in general, literature as
well as music, has tended to shape its material in the form of successive
tableaux. Juxtaposition and contrast have always played a more prominent role in
the unfolding of Russian musical works than have variation and elaboration. This
is true from Glinka all the way to Stravinsky, whose "revolutionary"
non-developmental style falls quite squarely in this tradition.
The greatest difficulty in the performance of this symphony is in making a
single coherent statement out of its four separate movements. Tchaikovsky has
"unified" these movements by the use of a sort of motto theme, heard
at the very outset, which makes an appearance in each of the four movements. But
the motto doesn't really succeed at its task. It is as if the composer himself,
unsure of the work's unity, were engaged in a desperate cover-up. The movement
that has always seemed most out of place is the third, a waltz that sounds as if
it jeteed straight out of Sleeping Beauty. What does this extraordinarily
ingratiating waltz have to do with the rather lugubrious goings-on in the
movements that surround it?
The answer lies in the unusually balletic quality of the work as a whole,
which can be heard very distinctly if the composer's numerous metronome
indications are taken seriously. At Tchaikovsky's specified tempo, the opening
theme of the first movement becomes a buoyant, delicately poised and
rhythmically subtle folk dance. The closing theme of the exposition, which often
sounds cloying, soars ecstatically above its lilting accompaniment, the
syncopations propelling it forward with irresistible verve. At Tchaikovsky's
tempo one also becomes acutely conscious of the frequent use of imitative
writing, little motives that chase each other from one section of the orchestra
to the other and help push the movement forward toward its climax. The close of
the first movement demonstrates an arresting use of musical psychology. After
the final tremendous triple forte, the volume gradually subsides, and the motive
of the first theme, with its characteristic dotted rhythm, moves in a steady
diminuendo into ever lower registers of the orchestra. Eventually, the motive
becomes fragmented - Tchaikovsky removes some of its essential notes, then,
virtually everything, leaving only one note at the point where the motive would
begin, but the power of the incessant rhythm is so strong that the ear supplies
what is missing in the score. Even after the movement finishes, one still hears
the subliminal throbbing of that compulsive rhythm.
The tempo that Tchaikovsky has specified for the last movement is somewhat
slower than that which has become traditional. (It is reassuring to find that
composers' metronome marks are not always on the fast side.) At this tempo the
movement is transformed from a virtuoso exercise in orchestral velocity into a
hopak, a cossack leaping dance, in which tremendous vitality is infused into
each note of the main theme. In this way, the influence of the dance can be felt
as pervasive throughout the symphony (is it perhaps stretching things too far to
imagine the second movement as an amorous pas de deux?) and the work can be seen
in a new light - as Tchaikovsky's sole attempt to integrate symphonic tradition
fully with the dance impulses that were his own lifeblood.
Enigma Variations, Op. 36: Nimrod Sir Edward Elgar
Each movement of the Enigma Variations bears a superscription alluding
obliquely to a friend of Elgar's. "Nimrod" was the nickname of A. J.
Jaeger, a music editor at the publishing firm of Novello & Co. and Elgar's
closest friend. The nickname equates the German meaning of the word Jaeger,
"hunter",with Nimrod, the "mighty hunter before the lord"
in Genesis. It was invariably to Jaeger that Elgar turned first, both in times
of professional triumph and in times of personal crisis, to share his joy and
his anxieties, receiving and reciprocating the personal and musical wisdom that
grew ever profounder as the years progressed. This mutually sustaining and
enriching friendship was in many ways the spiritual center of Elgar's life, just
as the "Nimrod" variation lies at the heart of the Enigma Variations.
It is the composer's tribute to his friend, and an attempt to depict in sound
the depth and indivisibility of an extraordinary friendship.
This music has become a symbol for the New England Conservatory Youth
Philharmonic Orchestra and has closed the season as an encore for many years.
With it the orchestra says goodbye to graduating students and bids welcome to
those who are about to arrive, while simultaneously extending its hand in
fellowship to the audience and all those who share in the great community of
by David St. George