Silver-tongued orator Benjamin Zander was at his pedagogical best in introducing Stravinsky's "Petrushka" to the Bose Discovery Series audience Thursday night in Sanders Theatre, and then the Boston Philharmonic gave a rip-roaring performance of the famous ballet score.
Stravinsky was noted for his observation that music cannot be "about" anything other than itself, but his practice tells another story -- if you want someone to put a Moor foot-juggling a coconut into music, Stravinsky is the man to do it. Zander entertainingly summarized the plot of the ballet, with musical illustrations, and then he showed how cross-rhythms and orchestral colors help tell the story. He instructed the hurdy-gurdy instruments to sound more decrepit, so they did; the trumpet, to sound like a mechanical doll, so he did. The tuba follows to his own lumbering rhythm; he represents a dancing bear at the fair. During the performance, the scenario for the ballet was projected onto a screen above the orchestra, which enabled the audience, which included many youngsters, to follow the music with sharpened ears.
Zander and the orchestra gave a mettlesome performance -- vivid, colorful, fearless, and soulful. All the important solo work was splendid, especially the agile trumpet of Jeffrey Work and the vivid piano of Heng-Jin Park.
In the rest of the program, Zander was less focused in his observations, and the performances weren't as good. The conductor took an interesting, slowish tempo for Ravel's "La Valse," and the movement toward Armageddon was inexorable, but of Ravel's virtuosity of subtle coloration there was little evidence.
Because Zander had almost nothing to say about the Gershwin Piano Concerto, he spoke fulsomely instead about the soloist Kevin Cole, recovering from an awful gaffe when he said that "La Valse" belonged at the opening of the concert because of its premonitions of disaster, which duly followed.
The debonair Cole bounded onstage with a calla lily pinned onto his lapel and began promisingly; he sounded lovely in the quiet opening and later in the French Impressionist water-music episode of the slow movement; he certainly didn't lack vitality in the contrasting sections. Work's bluesy muted trumpet was also a plus.
But the pianist was very often inaudible, so he turned on his Mouseketeer smile; the haunting melancholy at the heart of Gershwin's bustle, which non-Gershwin specialists as diverse as Sviatoslav Richter and Russell Sherman have found in the music, was missing. Gershwin's orchestration is admittedly inconsiderate, and Zander did nothing to thin the numbers or tone down the players. Cole banged away, apparently unaware that beyond a certain point, the harder you pound the keyboard, the less sound you produce.
Tiny Heng-Jin Park leveraged more tone, and of better quality, out of the same instrument in "Petrushka."
The audience nevertheless gave Cole a standing O, and in an encore of "Fascinatin' Rhythm" we finally heard why his Gershwin has been so much admired. The resemblance to the composer's own insouciant, dynamic, rhythmically charged playing was uncanny.
Benjamin Zander, conductor
At: Sanders Theatre, Thursday night (repeats tonight in Jordan Hall and tomorrow afternoon in