A Winner for Music Lovers

... "Melrose Overture" celebrates 100th anniversary

Jackie Wattenberg

After a long parade of clear Saturday nights, Mother Nature splashed a sudden wet snow just in time for Saturday night's Melrose Symphony Orchestra's concert. It weakened attendance but didn't dampen the reception the audience gave to Yoichi Udagawa in his second triumphant year on the podium.

The young - just 35 - conductor has continued his remaking of the symphony that was so remarkable last year. He took an ailing timorous,quavering creature and, with insights into its problems and proper treatment, converted it to an orchestra that can stand tall and proud.

It is still, of course, a volunteer orchestra, with many novice musicians, but as a violinist himself, he has given a new sound to the upper strings. His approach is to neglect none of the inner and outer voices, and to project each work's spirit with energy and respect for its style and mood.

Surely some day, when his baton moves over a major professional orchestra, many here can say, "We remember when!"

Of special interest Saturday evening was a new composition, always exciting in programs with dependable old masters. And this was a world premier of "Melrose Overture" by Scott Ethier, commissioned  for the orchestra in celebration of Melrose's 100th anniversary as a city. As always, Udagawa programmed a soloist, this time soprano Gina Beck in old American songs arranged by Aaron Copland.

After the now-expected rousing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," the young conductor offered pointers on the new Overture.

He led the orchestra in sections Future, Past, and Present, then a somewhat dissonant, frenzied section depicting a traffic jam, which he confided he had asked for to tease MSO President Millie Rich for her attitude toward extreme modern works that "are hard to understand!" It turned out to be a rather dazzling little portion of the piece, which was bright, lilting and rhythmically appealing.

The music's "Past" theme was a melody of serenity, perhaps recalling simpler, quieter days, and Udagawa conducted the whole work with lively tempi, projecting its changes of pace and color. The audience rewarded the new work with a resounding burst of applause, as the conductor pointed to the 27-year-old composer in the audience.

Gina Beck was a personable presence who, as if taking her lead from the conductors breezy rapport with the listeners, informally described each song before performing it. "Simple Gifts," "At the River," "Zion's Walls" and the amusing "Got Me a Cat" were sung with effective style in a warm, resonant voice of admirably even tones throughout her range. Her voice had a slightly nasal, not unattractive quality, which, however, changed to a lovely opulent purity on open sounds such as "no" or "Ago".

Her voice seemed to be full enough not to require use of the microphone, which distorted forte tones, especially brilliant notes.

Conductor Udagawa informed us that metronome, which sets tempo at designated time set by the composer, was developed around the period when Beethoven composed his popular Fifth Symphony. So he conducted the work, he said, according to Beethoven's instructions. The orchestra was in good form, responding to their director's firm desires in tempo and quick changes in dynamics. Despite being a sort of warhorse, the symphony held vitality and a brush of freshness.

Both his light-hearted manner and his serious approach to making music have made this promising young conductor a winner to Melrose music lovers.

Jackie Wattenberg is a contributing arts columnist for the Free Press and a Melrose resident.

March 13, 1999

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