Fleeting glory at Jordan Hall

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2011

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Music’s trouble and glory is its insubstantiality: insistently communicative yet only vaguely meaningful, powerful and fleeting all at once. The program presented last weekend by the Boston Philharmonic and conductor Benjamin Zander consistently teased the imagination with the various ways it made that elusiveness paradoxically assertive.

The centerpiece was Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, written in 1933, the composer’s last major work. Szymanowski’s music has always hovered just outside the classical canon, bearing the hallmarks of cult status: rich but esoteric, vibrant yet indefinable. The Concerto mixes Szymanowski’s exotic palette, his fluid harmonic opulence, with his late devotion to the vigor of Polish folk music. But the most exuberant and forceful phrases still tend to curl into more elliptical charms. The orchestra repeatedly rose to a thrilling blaze — a natural fit for Zander’s theatrical streak — but still harbored secrets just out of reach.

Violinist Ilya Kaler confidently navigated the work’s aesthetic extremes. He played with a big sound, tackling Szymanowski’s demands with passionate, acrobatic clarity; but there was an aristocratic core to the tone that maintained a sense of the composer’s refined reticence even in the most rustic fiddling. It suited the music’s dual nature — on the surface, Szymanowski is splashy and bold, but there is a bewitching tension underneath, between the palpable determination with which the composer pulled Polish style into a plush 20th-century idiom and his penchant for pushing that idiom towards the ineffable.

Zander surrounded Szymanowski’s vivid mysteries with British variations on the theme. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’’ was given a brawn that amplified the music’s restlessness as much as it anchored it. The contrast between the deep varnish of the full complement of strings and the lean, organ-like astringency of a smaller group (arrayed at the back of the Jordan Hall stage) put Tudor references at a pale historical distance. The full-throated expression brought to the fore the vocabulary’s solid slipperiness, a turbulent, unmoored consonance.

Edward Elgar’s “Enigma’’ Variations presented a more impish mystery — the very title has inspired legions of would-be codebreakers to try and fathom the work’s hidden and quite possibly chimerical theme. The orchestra’s warm, sometimes brilliant reading, expansively swinging between playful and grand, gave each variation’s mood sharp presence: a testament to the footing Elgar found by putting a bit of music’s capacity for misdirection at his masterwork’s center.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

BOSTON PHILHARMONIC Benjamin Zander, conductor

With Ilya Kaler, violin

At: Jordan Hall, Friday