Backward Looks, Compelling Play: Bailey and Zander

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Zuill Baliey (file photo)

Zuill Baliey (file photo)

A broken cello string well into Dutilleux’s cello concerto occasioned a quick instrument substitution provided by the second chair cellist. After the restart, for some reason, another move came. Quickly, returning her cello, soloist Zuill Bailey left the stage for a new string. Meanwhile, Benjamin Zander entertained with stories of bows flying and strings popping, lending welcome levity to the Saturday evening concert.

On the intended side, Zander led the Boston Philharmonic at Jordan Hall in French and English music dating back a century or so. Claude Debussy’s Prélude à L’aprés-midi d’un faune and Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un Monde Lointain…found artistic shine, while William Walton’s Scapino Overture and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations bathed in symphonic lore.

Filling the stage in formal black attire, the Boston Philharmonic, under the baton grandeur of Zander, would prompt thoughts of yesteryear and a tradition of music making still alive, but not necessarily thriving. Noticeably visible were many seats left unoccupied—conjecture, though, might have it that other reasons would be at play. It should be pointed out that the same concert was given the previous Thursday evening and that another would be given the following Sunday.

Certainly, it is difficult at best to try and guess an audience’s real feel for a program, a performance, or a piece. Yet one wonders why so little applause followed the Debussy and, it seemed, even less for the Walton. Have we heard the Frenchman’s Faun masterpiece too often by now? Has the Englishman’s comedic Scapino lost something over time?

Yet, for the newest piece on the block, the Dutilleux, there was. in fact, a standing ovation. Was it for standout cellist Zuill Bailey who miraculously conjured a whole world away, one that an experienced yet perplexed concert goer grasped only as “extraterrestrial?” In his program note—itself demanding some kind of standing O—David St. George reveals, “On the title page of the score the composer gives a slightly fuller quote: ‘Tout un Monde Lointain, absent, Presque defunt’ (‘A whole world away, distant, almost dead’).”

For me, privileged as a young student in Paris to attend several of his Saturday morning composition seminars at the École Normale Supérieure, this Dutilleux is a transitional work. While its timbral and harmonic language illumine, tinges of Viennese Expressionism coupled with metric rhythm darken, if not slightly contradict.

Cello soloist Bailey drew the best out of this work, creating ethereal poignancy, purifying rapture, and sustaining compelling intrigue.

The Philharmonic flourished with the many plush, complex orchestral textures inhabiting the near half-hour score.

Debussy on the whole expounded on architecture rather than summoning French atmospheric dreaming. Wafting through, though, wind solos felt like soft embracing streamers in a spring dreamscape.

On the English side came Sir Walton’s Scapino Overture, a wakeup call, as it were, after intermission. The high speed, high volume, big orchestra piece blazed away. While the Boston Philharmonic once again displayed elevated rituals of artistry appropriate for the overture, very little came of all of it. Why? Walton’s “I-am-one-move-ahead-of-you” wound up being more fatiguing, if not unsurprising, once the listener caught up and caught on.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations fit right into that look back in time—and for the best. Approaching the final destination of those 14 variations which inevitably evoke graduation time, those sonic shadows made for genuine poetry, a glowing and warm. Once again with the orchestra shining in symphonic affect, there was specter of overdoing it. Relaxation and reflection—relief in a word—almost went missing, and when hushed passages were delivered by the Philharmonic, how relished they were.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net