In glowing review after glowing review, critics praise the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for upending expectations, citing a musical maturity that belies the performers’ tender ages. Undeniably true, yet a strong argument could be made that the BPYO excels not in spite of but because of their youth. They bring a vitality, enthusiasm and delight in discovery that only those experiencing something for the first time can produce. Think the powerful impact of first love.
On June 12th, this 120-member orchestra of talented 12 to 21-year olds—led by its co-founder and guiding force Benjamin Zander—embarks on a 15-day, multi-city tour, performing in some of the most storied concert halls in Europe. The ambitious journey takes them to Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, including a stop at the birthplace of Gustav Mahler, whose Ninth Symphony is the centerpiece of a demanding program that also features George Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow” and Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.”
Formed from scratch in 2012 by Zander, the Grammy-nominated conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Artistic Adviser Mark Churchill and Boston Philharmonic Managing Director Elisabeth Christensen, the BPYO quickly made its presence known in the classical world, receiving accolades reserved for orchestras well past them in age. “Their sound is more consistently fresh and energetic than what you usually hear from a long-standing professional ensemble…They’re as responsive, confident, technically skilled, and emotionally expressive an orchestra as they come,” Arts Fuse music critic Jonathan Blumhofer wrote. The Chicago Tribune hailed the group’s inaugural recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 on Brattle Media as one of 2017’s top 10 classical releases. New York Arts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Lloyd Schwartz called it “one of the most thrilling Mahler performances I’ve ever heard."
BPYO players go through a highly selective audition process and pay no costs for a musical education that’s as much inspirational as aspirational, a platform for the overarching mission of shaping future leaders through music. The international performances—the 2018 European tour is their fifth—have become an essential ingredient in the musical and personal development of these youngsters. “The tour is not just a bunch of kids running from one city to another,” Zander says. “This is a journey of the spirit. They have a profound understanding of the music, why they love it so much and why it has changed their life. What they want to do now is to share that passion with the world.” As one BPYO violinist put it: “We may be young people, but we have been given the chance to change the world with love, music, and possibility.”
The concerts for the 2018 tour commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, highlighting pieces at the dividing line between the Romantic and Modern eras of music. The program typifies the challenges Zander, one of the foremost interpreters of Mahler, sets before the BPYO. “The Ninth is Mahler’s final completed symphony and it would be taxing even for a world-renowned orchestra. You might ask what on earth can they get out of playing such a complex and difficult piece and the answer is everything. They are overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of one of the most touching and intricate pieces of music ever written.”
The remainder of the program is equally dramatic. Butterworth wrote his orchestral idyll “The Banks of Green Willow” in 1913. Tragically, WWI cut short the life of this promising English composer. Ravel’s “La Valse,” composed in 1919, reflects on the ravages of that same war and the loss of close friends. The work takes the Viennese waltz and transforms it into a whirling dervish harbinger of impending catastrophe.
The orchestra will perform in cities of significance in Mahler’s life and career, including at the Konzerthaus in Berlin (June 14), the Rudolfinum in Prague (June 18), the Mozarteum in Salzburg (June 20), the National Concert Hall in Budapest (June 21), the Kodaly Centre in Pecs (June 22), the Muzikverein in Vienna (June 24) and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (June 26). The musicians will also play at the Mahler Festival in Jihlava (Czech Republic) on June 16th. In several stops, they will have the opportunity to meet and interact with the city’s premiere professional orchestras. Classical Movements assisted with arrangements for the tour.
“We know that these youngsters will play before musically sophisticated audiences in Europe but the orchestra will not disappoint even the most seasoned listener,” Churchill says. “What they bring in addition to the highest technical quality is life, freshness and an engagement that is palpable and inspiring.”
It is hard to think of anyone better suited to leading a youth orchestra than Zander, a man fellow conductor Simon Rattle called “the world’s oldest teenager.” Nearing 80, Zander approaches every endeavor with an age-defying youthful exuberance. “That passion and energy enables Ben to bond with these kids in such a unique way. He helps them to truly understand how great music connects with humanity and in leading successful lives,” Churchill says.
Risks and challenges
Plans for the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra tour to Europe are in the final stages. There are always challenges associated with traveling internationally with a large group, but we are confident that we will be able to overcome the hurdles that arise. Our artistic and administrative teams have led many successful international orchestra tours over the years and are thrilled to bring that expertise to the BPYO’s fifth international tour.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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