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Uneven numbers upset the balance

02.28.07
Stefan Jackiw
The Boston Globe

By Matthew Guerrieri

Much of the interpretive work of music is finding a balance between tension and release, between dramatic escalation and resolution. Saturday night's Boston Philharmonic concert, led by music director Benjamin Zander, highlighted the pitfalls of relying too much on only one side of the equation.The first half was all Beethoven, music in which the release of tension often requires more intensity than the tension itself. A crisp reading of the overture to Goethe's "Egmont" avoided the issue by opting for blocks of sound rather than shaped lines, a declamatory approach that worked well over the short span of the piece. But in the first movement of the violin concerto that followed, the orchestra consistently relaxed on harmonic resolutions, disrupting the grandeur with stop-and-go momentum.

Soloist and young phenom Stefan Jackiw got it right: The downbeats were alive and electric, a bloom on the tone or a subtle syncopated emphasis pushing the line forward. Jackiw's technique is prodigious, his intonation precise, but his playing is striking for its intelligence and sensitivity; he subtly teased out the twists and turns of each phrase without distorting the overall rhythm.

In the slow, aria-like second movement, the group began to follow Jackiw's lead, and the deceptively simple music took flight. Jackiw was at his best here, applying vibrato judiciously rather than indiscriminately. If the third movement was a little monochromatic -- Jackiw's full-bowed sound doesn't always lend itself to varied articulation -- Beethoven's incessant hunting calls never flagged in energy.

The Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius , which closed the concert, might be Beethovenian in its iconoclastic, individual voice, but the piece is built around the journey, rather than the arrival; tensions linger, while resolutions are deliberately underplayed.

This worked to the group's advantage in the first movement, which started out promisingly, and more extroverted phrases were dramatically taut. But quieter sections, where the winds float gnomic lines over the rustling, whispering strings, were unusually leaden, an anomaly that became the norm as Zander's large, insistent gestures overwhelmed the delicately scored second movement.

The finale -- the great brass tune that British musicologist Donald Tovey once likened to Thor swinging his hammer -- had no swing at all. The undifferentiated accents made the final six sharp, startling chords no sudden shock, just more of the same. If every number stops the show, the show never gets started.

Much of the interpretive work of music is finding a balance between tension and release, between dramatic escalation and resolution. Saturday night's Boston Philharmonic concert, led by music director Benjamin Zander, highlighted the pitfalls of relying too much on only one side of the equation.The first half was all Beethoven, music in which the release of tension often requires more intensity than the tension itself. A crisp reading of the overture to Goethe's "Egmont" avoided the issue by opting for blocks of sound rather than shaped lines, a declamatory approach that worked well over the short span of the piece. But in the first movement of the violin concerto that followed, the orchestra consistently relaxed on harmonic resolutions, disrupting the grandeur with stop-and-go momentum.

Soloist and young phenom Stefan Jackiw got it right: The downbeats were alive and electric, a bloom on the tone or a subtle syncopated emphasis pushing the line forward. Jackiw's technique is prodigious, his intonation precise, but his playing is striking for its intelligence and sensitivity; he subtly teased out the twists and turns of each phrase without distorting the overall rhythm.

In the slow, aria-like second movement, the group began to follow Jackiw's lead, and the deceptively simple music took flight. Jackiw was at his best here, applying vibrato judiciously rather than indiscriminately. If the third movement was a little monochromatic -- Jackiw's full-bowed sound doesn't always lend itself to varied articulation -- Beethoven's incessant hunting calls never flagged in energy.

The Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius , which closed the concert, might be Beethovenian in its iconoclastic, individual voice, but the piece is built around the journey, rather than the arrival; tensions linger, while resolutions are deliberately underplayed.

This worked to the group's advantage in the first movement, which started out promisingly, and more extroverted phrases were dramatically taut. But quieter sections, where the winds float gnomic lines over the rustling, whispering strings, were unusually leaden, an anomaly that became the norm as Zander's large, insistent gestures overwhelmed the delicately scored second movement.

The finale -- the great brass tune that British musicologist Donald Tovey once likened to Thor swinging his hammer -- had no swing at all. The undifferentiated accents made the final six sharp, startling chords no sudden shock, just more of the same. If every number stops the show, the show never gets started.