“The only purpose of an overture is to allow latecomers to be seated,” quipped Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, at the beginning of its concert in Sanders Theatre on Oct. 23. The concert was part of the BPO’s “Discovery” series, in which Zander gives a presentation prior to directing each work.
The overture in question was Mozart’s four-and-a-half-minute overture to the opera “Così fan tutte.” The overture was followed by Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante,” a double concerto featuring Miriam Fried and Kim Kashkashian as violin and viola soloists, respectively. The second half of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s monumental 2nd Symphony, performed uncut. The result was a three-hour-long concert—certainly longer than most, but ultimately satisfying.
In his introduction to the overture to “Così fan tutte,” Zander proudly declared that the audience was about to hear the first performance of the overture “as Mozart truly intended” in 200 years. Zander explained that it seemed intuitive that a musical quote from the opera—appearing once in the “Andante” introduction and returning in the main section, “Presto”—be performed at the same tempo. The result was a structurally cohesive performance: Zander’s interpretation indeed felt natural and highlighted the musical theme that would normally follow in the opera, which brought out the BPO’s virtuosity and lush sound.
Miriam Fried and Kim Kashkashian, both professors at the New England Conservatory, appeared next in Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante.” Charming as always, Zander introduced Kashkashian as not just “the world’s greatest living violist”—but also “a recent black belt.” True to Zander’s words, Kashkashian shone in the double concerto—her rich tone perfectly complemented, perhaps even engulfed, Fried’s. The “Sinfonia concertante” was filled with polish and character and showed a strong connection between the orchestra and the two soloists.
The core of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony. As with the Mozart overture, Zander had some distinctive ideas about the Rachmaninoff. The symphony, around an hour long at full length, is often cut down to as little as 35 minutes, but Zander and the Boston Philharmonic presented the piece in its entirety. However, to ease the blow of an hour of straight music, Zander explained that he would speed up whenever melodies returned. This wasn’t quite convincing—both from a musical and technical perspective—and resulted in some fumbling.
But otherwise, the BPO’s performance of the symphony was utterly beautiful, with a passionate and full sound from the whole orchestra—most notably the string section. The symphony’s lyrical melodies shone, while its violent moments were riotously joyful or furious. And despite taking the fourth movement at what he called a “conservative” tempo, Zander’s energy and intimacy with the orchestra drove it forward without feeling rushed.
By the closing triumphant E-major chords of the symphony, Zander and the BPO had taken the listeners on what Zander described as a journey from the depths of depression to ultimate victory. It was also a day of victory for Zander and the BPO; they had avoided the Rachmaninoff for decades for fear that it would be inaccessible due to its length. Ultimately, the Rachmaninoff—and the Mozart compositions preceding it—made for a very fulfilling concert that justified its length.
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