Arts concert review

Dutilleux’s 'Tout un monde lointain…' transports its audience to a new world

Boston Philharmonic Orchestra delivers an outstanding performance with cellist Zuill Bailey

Debussy, Dutilleux, Walton, and Elgar
Boston Philharmonic Orchestra
Benjamin Zander, Conductor
Zuill Bailey, Cello
Harvard University Sanders Theater
Nov. 17, 2016

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) is a semi-professional orchestra composed of performers from varying ages and professions. Despite this spectrum of experience, renowned conductor and founder Benjamin Zander brings out the best in these artists, with the sections harmonizing into enchanting melodies and memorable performances.

Thursday’s concert opened to the quaint charms of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The prelude conjured the image of a forest in the natural, rural world and the flutes carried this atmosphere well. The main themes of the clarinet and flute parts were dreamlike and serene, a strange juxtaposition with Zander’s animated conducting during the more invigorating passages.

At the conclusion of the Debussy piece, Zander came up to the microphone and began a speech about the following piece, Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain…. He explained how cellist Zuill Bailey heard this piece performed for the first time as an 11 year old and swore to someday perform this difficult cello piece.

Prior to this concert, Bailey never had the opportunity to do so since most orchestras were unwilling to perform this particular Dutilleux due to the difficulty of the solo cello part. Bailey, who had been asking orchestras and receiving refusals for answers, was surprised when Zander was the one asking him to perform the piece rather than the other way around.

To affirm for us how remarkable this performance would be, Zander told us that the BPO and Bailey’s performance of Tout un monde lointain… was going to be the fourth time the piece would have ever been performed in Boston, despite the composition being over 40 years old. Thursday night would be the first time Bailey had ever performed this piece to an audience.

The piece’s title, translated from French as A whole distant world, is strikingly accurate: the 12-note theme harmonizes with the rest of the orchestra, and the intriguing dissonance of this piece feels like no other. The concertante work is composed of five movements inspired from poet Claude Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, lending the piece a poetic and mysterious ambience when performed.

Opening with soft drums and cymbals that bring in the soloist’s cello line, this whole distant world was largely carried by the fantastic performance of Bailey — his percussive use of pizzicato despite such challenging intervals between notes were remarkable and mesmerising.

The cello was so emotionally performed that Bailey broke a string in the middle of the performance, and after being applauded generously by the audience, he politely excused himself to fix the string. Despite the break, the atmosphere that he had set was so riveting that the rest of the piece continued without a hitch. Definitely the centerpiece of Thursday’s performance, this Dutilleux performance was met with a standing ovation.

After the intermission, the BPO returned with the lively Walton’s Scapino Overture, an exhilarating eight minutes of melody soon followed by another speech by Zander about the final piece of the night, Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

While describing Enigma Variations, he tells us the story of how Elgar composed this piece. Returning home exhausted after work, he began to improvise on the piano, when one of his improvised melodies caught the attention of his wife. Consequently, Elgar continued to write variations and more improvisations, eventually completing this series of the main theme followed by 14 variations that each reflect upon people he knew, including his wife.

The performance drew upon the variations’ wide range of emotional passages, but the BPO’s interpretation of Variation IX ‘Nimrod’ is noteworthy because Zander prefaced the performance, saying that although ‘Nimrod’ is often performed at funerals and thus, is interpreted as a depressing piece, it could also be interpreted as a noble and celebratory piece. As a trumpet player in the BPO noted to Zander, ‘Nimrod’ was originally named for Augustus Jaegar, Elgar’s close friend who encouraged him to continue composing, and because the word Jäger means hunter and because Nimrod was referenced in the Bible as “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” the variation was named as such.

Zander’s concerts are palatable for anyone new to the classical music world. The most rewarding part of his concerts are Zander’s pre-concert speeches, leaving even the most unenthusiastic audience remembering the humanity behind these performances. Zander reminded the audience that behind each piece was a human composer and that behind every performance were human performers.

Overall, the BPO delivered a special tour-de-force Thursday night. Like in his other concerts, Zander exuded a compelling love of classical music — from the excited, animated flicks of his baton to the humanity displayed in his words and storytelling. Evidently, this performance is no different.