There can be no doubt about the popularity of Russian composers in general and the three works presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in its recent program, Romeo & Juliet.
The program, featuring pianist Joyce Yang and conductor Diego Matheuz comprised:
Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2
Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet: Excerpts
This program was meant to start off with Mussorgsky’s original composition but an email from the MSO on the day of the concert advised Classic Melbourne: “The Orchestra will now perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain as opposed to the previously advertised original Mussorgsky version.”
As a curtain raiser, either version would be acceptable. Matheuz is famous for his enthusiasm and energetic style of conducting which were in evidence from the outset. But at times this had a deleterious effect on the tempo and the work was too fast, so that phrases were at times blurred. Perhaps the late change affected the finer points of the performance, the brass seeming very loud by comparison with the more subtle winds. However, these are minor quibbles, given the MSO’s well-received performance.
The arrival of Korean pianist Joyce Yang, pretty in pink, heralded a change of approach, particularly as the conductor gallantly deferred to the soloist on all matters of importance to the piano. The series of measured chords, with the pianist supported by the cellos, set the scene for a respectful account of this well-loved concerto. And with Yang’s technique and Matheuz’s excitement there was to be no lack of brilliance. The simple beauty of the often-reiterated themes lent a balance and grounding to the pyrotechnics of the first and final movements.
The Steinway at times did seem a little muffled in the space but it is impossible to judge whether the pianist could have done more about that. And at least in this work the brass’s intensity was welcome.
The second movement began with moody but strong strings. Then when the piano entered, its balance with the flute created a feeling of a duet, until the full orchestra entered to swell the sound. Yang played this movement lovingly, showing a sensitivity which complemented her brilliant but unshowy technique. Near the end of this movement her graceful arpeggios were as admirable as any other aspects of this second movement, with its achingly beautiful ending.
As for the third movement, there was confidence this would be a thriller. Yang’s technique, the orchestra’s confidence with this work and the conductor’s enthusiasm combined, from the outset, to do justice to Rachmaninov’s work. It is one of the most exciting of all romantic Concertos – and that is saying something!
From the moment of the interrupted cadence that heralds the beginning of the ending, there was a thrilling rollercoaster ride of scales and other challenges for the pianist and, supporting her, the orchestral musicians. Matheuz, for his part, kept the control of the whole, so that the audience could simply relax and enjoy the music, confident that it would be brought to a brilliant end. As it was.
Responding to great applause, Yang returned to the platform to play an encore which contrasted with the mood of the entire first half. Ginestera’s Dance of the beautiful maiden was a sensitive and delicate piece, but although such encores after dramatic concertos can sometimes be a letdown, it was good to not have to let go of Yang and her lovely touch just yet.
After interval came the Prokofiev. Excerpts from several Suites meant the music lacked the continuity of the “story” of the ballet, Romeo & Juliet, but each piece could be appreciated for its particular charm. The selection opened with The Montagues and Capulets, and its “Dance of the Knights” which is surely the best-known part of this work. It was conducted resolutely and played strongly by the orchestra, which did equally well with the contrasting Juliet the Young Girl, which came next. Not every item seemed as successful; for example, Arrival of the Guests was taken too fast and hence was not quite together.
The busy scenes in the street were mostly well realised, only with the occasional rushed tempo which tended to hide the individual contributions of many in the orchestra, including the leader. But it would be on fair to say that the performance showed the MSO in good form, with the final Death of Juliet a showpiece.
Conducting them, Diego appeared to embrace the whole orchestra as the work ended. They deserved it.
The image of Joyce Yang is by Oh Seuk Hoon.