Youth Philharmonic tackles Mahler to kick off European tour

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By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 6, 2011

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Mahler’s towering Ninth Symphony is music shot through with the notion of farewell. It’s commonly described as the work of a man coming to terms with mortality and an acceptance of death (though, after finishing it, Mahler plunged directly into writing his Tenth). Even if one brackets the piece’s colossal technical demands, the Ninth is not the first work one associates with teenage musicians and the typically splashy repertoire of a youth symphony.

But Benjamin Zander and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at New England Conservatory are arguing otherwise. On Friday night, Zander led a giant orchestra of young musicians (supported by a sprinkling of NEC college mentors) in an ardent and accomplished performance of the Ninth, one that thrilled the large crowd of supporters present in Jordan Hall.

Zander is a Mahler specialist and also has a gift for inspiring young players to throw everything they have into the music at hand. All of this was needed for a work that stretched the ensemble right to its outer limits. Of course you could feel that sense of stretching — the piece challenges even professional ensembles — but what was notable was how much worked so well.

The pacing of the first movement effectively structured the series of climaxes, the two supremely difficult inner movements had much of the sardonic bite and brutal force required, and it was touching to see a sea of teenage string players digging in and pouring their best into the spiraling final slow movement, one of the most memorable adagios in the symphonic literature. Zander’s conducting here radiated a visceral intensity and many of the players responded in kind.

Before intermission, principal cellist Jonah Ellsworth, 17, was the impressive soloist for Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo’’ Variations. His tone was mellow yet rich, his technique secure, and his playing most of all marked by a sense of sincere personal commitment. Beyond learning all the fast and high passagework, here was a young player with something to say.

The concert also marked the kickoff of a 10-day tour the orchestra will undertake this month to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Zander calls it a “Mahler pilgrimage’’ in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death, as the group will travel to several sites of significance in Mahler’s life, concluding with a concert at Vienna’s Musikverein. Friday’s concert was also the final hometown performance for several graduating seniors, so the concert ended with the orchestra’s bidding its traditional farewell to them by way of the “Nimrod’’ from Elgar’s “Enigma’’ Variations.

Yet it was Mahler’s sublime finale that, as is its custom, lingered in the mind after the concert — as did a clear sense of how fortunate these students are to have experienced this repertoire from the inside at such a young and formative age.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Benjamin Zander, conductor

At: Jordan Hall, Friday night