Back in pre-history (1964), a brilliant young Brit, a cellist (student of Benjamin Britten) and conductor, came to town and shook up the local classical-music scene. In 1970 he became the music director of Boston's Civic Symphony, and he began to specialize in a composer no one thought a community orchestra ready to handle, Gustav Mahler. These performances were hair-raising, not just because they pushed the orchestra beyond its technical capacity (surely just what Mahler did with his own orchestras), but also because they gave the best players (concertmaster Daniel Stepner, oboist Peggy Pearson, horn player David Hoose, harpist Martha Moor) a chance to shine. They were the most exciting symphonic performances around, and music lovers who'd never attend a community-orchestra concert were hooked.
The Civic Symphony board, though, had a hard time dealing with Benjamin Zander's ambitions for the orchestra, and it fired him. So 30 years ago, Zander and his musicians (all but one of whom resigned from the Civic Symphony in protest) formed the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. That anniversary, and Zander's 70th birthday, were celebrated last week with a special performance at Symphony Hall of a Zander specialty, Mahler's Symphony No 2, the Resurrection (the next Mahler he's scheduled to record for his Telarc series with the Philharmonia of London). The concert was preceded by a ceremony in which Tony Woodcock and Mark Churchill, in full academic regalia, presented Zander with an honorary degree from New England Conservatory, where he's been teaching for some 40 years. The young turk had officially become the senior sage.
This is by my reckoning the fifth time Zander has led the Mahler Second with the BPO at Symphony Hall. With an apocalyptic scope and vision that includes a chorus and two vocal soloists joining the orchestra, this symphony needs all the space it can get. And Zander takes full advantage of it, placing groups of brass in the upper balcony ("At the round earth's imagined corners") as well as off stage. Some of those early performances were uncanny in the way Zander managed to convey what only music can, different — even contradictory — attitudes and emotions at the same time. Searching for new answers, reconsidering — often rejecting — old ones. This time, in the sprawling first-movement funeral procession, Zander presented Mahler's spiritual predicament as a series of alternative possibilities about an afterlife, and though the heavenly vision was radiantly played, the veering back and forth between earthly grief and heavenly ecstasy felt more like disconnected juxtapositions than responsive reactions. I wondered whether Zander wasn't conducting Mahler as if it were Bruckner, whose sections are much more compartmentalized, more like huge building blocks (as in Zander's splendidly played, heroically and architecturally conceived new Philharmonia recording of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, which accompanies his useful bonus-disc lecture with the floor plan of a cathedral).
Zander waited half a minute more than the five-minute interval Mahler asks for, then burst into the naive, nostalgic dance of the slow movement. He gave it a lovely lilt, though I didn't quite understand the way the movement's brief darker section functioned as a response to the dreamy past.
In his pre-concert talk, Zander spoke about the deep bitterness of the Scherzo, Mahler's non-vocal setting of a comic song he'd set before in which St. Anthony of Padua, frustrated with human blockheadedness, delivers his sermon to fish, who listen politely then swim away to business as usual. Could this exhilarating performance have been even nastier?
The turning point came with the entrance of the alto soloist singing the mysterious "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"). Mezzo-soprano Jane Struss, Zander's long-time collaborator, who sang the BPO's first two Symphony Hall performances (and one at Carnegie Hall), set the standard in one of the most moving and urgent renditions of this music I've ever heard, with an astounding octave leap into eternity on "Himmel" the German word for "Heaven." Zander's last Mahler 2 mezzo, in 2004, was Canadian Susan Platts, whose big rich voice, I thought, lacked urgency. Platts was back, and this time, sounding like an earth mother, she conveyed much greater emotional involvement, her voice opening out to fill the hall and embrace everyone in it. In the smaller soprano role, Ilana Davidson, also returning from 2004, still made a pretty sound but compared with Platts was a little thin.
Throughout, the playing was a bit uneven, with the best work coming from the usual sources (Pearson's plangent oboe, Moor's spectral but rhythmically incisive harp). Zander's triumph was the broad last movement, which he allowed to unfold with inexorable, "slow-chap't power," layer upon layer. The final overwhelming vision seemed earned — and, as it should, at some cost.