Young pianist, Udagawa and MSO triumph

 ... Symphony orchestra is a jewel among our city's treasures 

Jackie Wattenberg

Bless the music-makers. Bless Yoichi Udagawa and his Melrose Symphony, surely a jewel among our city's treasures. Personal struggles, worries about war, even health problems can be washed aside when this masterful young conductor brings such music as he brought to Memorial Hall last Saturday evening.

It was a program of serious classics -- just two large works, Grieg's ever-popular piano concerto with a brilliant young pianist, Sara Takagi, Beethoven's seventh symphony, and a brand new, charming composition by Melrose-born Michael Gandolfi reflecting on "Notes from Childhood."

Grieg's concerto hands over a challenging, colorful first movement with pianistic fireworks that the petite pianist ripped off with bravura force and total confidence in her technical virtuosity; it ends in such a forte climax that much of the audience felt it was the end of the work or simply found the pianist so impressive that they rose, cheered and clapped in a standing ovation.

Already an experienced soloist, the young Ms. Takagi exudes spirit, vehemence and power. Every great solo work is taken on with individual interpretation, which is why we love to hear the same great music over and over, noting new insights, a performer's approach that is different from what we've heard before. The Grieg is a romantic work, also a work with demanding fast runs, trills, heavy chords and the performer saw it as a work of drama, enthralling the crowd with her technical brilliance.

And the orchestra was in marvelous form in support of the soloist, rising to the occasion of this demanding and very popular score. They've never sounded better. Their opening chords of the second, slow movement were sublimely beautiful.

Udagawa is generous in offering composers a venue for their new works, and last week's was especially gratifying for Melrose listeners since the "Notes from Childhood" traveled back in time to composer Gandolfi's childhood in our fair city, with themes dedicated to his family members as well as Aaron Copeland and Stravinsky. The themes flowed brightly, each quite separate from the other, in rhythmic changes and traditional harmonies of inventive and contrasting color.

It would be interesting to hear some of his other works, which include music with narrations, one for the story of Pinnochio.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is not a work easy to bring off successfully, but under this undeterred conductor it was absorbing and compelling. Perhaps my favorite of Beethoven's nine symphonies, it is one of his mature, often subtle and seldom blustery big works. The second movement's blending of two lovely themes, dark and brooding, were realized effectively, and always surprising is the last movement's sudden downward leaps, brief but astonishing in their dissonant modern sound reminding of Shostakovich's similar outbursts.

The conductor responded to the varying moods of each movement with a knowing hand always maintaining the music's energy, and the orchestra did very well. At times when Udagawa urged increased fire and power, we might have wished he had the fuller strength of the Boston Symphony before him -- or is some of the power lost in Memorial Hall's drapes and high ceiling?

Another rewarding night of uncompromisingly fine music right here in town. Long may Udagawa reign with our MSO.

This review was published in the Melrose Free Press on Thursday, March 6, 2003 and is reprinted here with their permission.

April 4, 2003

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