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Zander leads splendid Philharmonic

Reprinted from early editions of yesterday's Globe.
Benjamin Zander has become one of the major Mahlerians of the day. Telarc has just issued his recording of the Third Symphony with London's Philharmonia Orchestra, the fifth release in an ongoing cycle. He is also in a season-long "Mahler Journey" with his home orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic, which brought him to the Second Symphony in Symphony Hall Wednesday night -- a performance he and the Philharmonic will take to Carnegie Hall on Feb. 29.

Wednesday night's performance traced a profound emotional journey from grief and despair and human confusion through funeral rites, marches, peasant dances, grotesquerie, and terror to triumphant affirmation. The Philharmonic sounded splendid in Symphony Hall, and some of the solo playing by oboist Peggy Pearson, trumpeter Jeffrey Work, flutist Kathleen Boyd, trombonist Don C. Davis, and others was on the highest level.

The Chorus Pro Musica began collaborating with Zander in the 1980s when Donald Palumbo was its music director. Since then Palumbo has earned international prominence as chorus master of the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Salzburg Festival. He returned for this event, and his singers sounded confident and idiomatic across the wide dynamic range of the music. Susan Platts boasts a sumptuous contralto, but tonal quality and even intonation flickered in and out of focus; still, the best she had to offer was something to cherish. Ilana Davidson traced her soprano lines with silver.

It was hardly Zander's fault that the Symphony Hall organ is being restored, so he had to use an electronic instrument that sounded like an outboard motor. But his gift is to keep a performance alert, alive, and fully present in every moment, as Mahler's music requires; the music ran along the nerves.

An ancillary event, Zander's performance of the Ninth Symphony with the New England Conservatory Philharmonia last week, was less successful. The conductor held a firm grasp on the musical and emotional issues, and there was some superior solo playing from, among others, concertmaster Gabriela Diaz, violist Boris Vayner, flutist Sarah Tiedemann, bassoonist Matthew Lano, contrabassoonist Andrew Heinrich, horn Erin Koertge, and tympanist Gregory Cohen. The entire orchestra played with impressive commitment and stamina.

But some technical issues interfered with full realization of Zander's intentions, and Mahler's. Much of the 30-minute first movement was so out of tune and so not together that it was painful to hear -- and not in the sense that Mahler meant this music to be excruciating. Problems of this nature continued to appear throughout the work. It is impossible to depart purposefully from many of the basic standards and disciplines of orchestral playing before you have taken the trouble to master them.

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