Reviews ...

MSO opens season

... with stunning concert

by Jackie Wattenberg

It's conductor Yoichi Udagawa's eighth year with our Melrose Symphony Orchestra (MSO) -- and what an incredible difference he has made. The season opening concert on Saturday, Oct. 29, brought our local orchestra to a higher standard of excellence than ever -- which we have been saying each year since he took over our 88-year old symphony.

Dynamic pianist Jonathan Bass and Yoichi dazzled the full house in Memorial Hall -- it's always a full house now -- in Gershwin's popular Rhapsody in Blue. The energy, zest and unique merging of classical and jazz components that make Gershwin still stand alone, unchallenged, barely imitated, were handsomely communicated by the pianist with unflinching support from the orchestra. I've never heard our musicians play so forcefully, sharply, with dependable intonation and balance, with both brightness and transparency of sound. Udagawa and Bass were fearless in tempos, and the players had to keep up.

Gershwin deserves this respect and dedication; dying tragically from a brain tumor before he was 40, with his music's marvelous uniqueness respected in his time more in Europe than here. He was admired by Ravel and Shostakovich, and performed in serious performances by symphonies there, while in his native land his works were relegated to pops concerts. How many more concertos in F and Porgy and Besses he might have brought us had he lived longer.

His frisky rhythms and insinuating melodies are irresistible, and Bass had fine abandon and technical control. Though the Rhapsody is popular, often played and recorded, it inspires very individual interpretations, so it's fun to hear disparate readings. Gershwin himself chose a rapid tempo, no fooling around. Our conductor imbued the music with at times a serenity and warmth, as in the lovely melody rudely taken over by an airline, while others might add surges of urgency. Wonderful opportunities for interpretation.

The audience insisted on an encore, and Bass assented with a selection from Samuel Barber's "Excursions." An admirier of Barber, I've found his work richly romantic and rhapsodic, so this rapid-fire piece was quite un-Barber and revealing to me. The pianist again zipped through unrelenting runs with dashing accents and dexterity. Maestro Udagawa, an accomplished violinist, might offer us Barber's glorious violin concerto himself one evening.

This program began with a friendly, reflective piece by Melrose composer Byron Gandolfi, with themes dedicated to his two sisters and his parents. Composed for our symphony and premiered in 2003, it meanders gracefully through melodious fields recalling composers of the past, most notably the American Aaron Copeland.

Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite filled out this program of American music. As Udagawa mentioned, this popular work used to be played more often in the past. As always he pointed out certain themes before performing it, with his engaging rapport with the audience. He is a charmer. Concertmaster Judy Takata gave us a preview we enjoyed later as she strove for an amusing donkey sound, climaxing on a smartly defined high note.  

Each distintive mood section was finely spun, interrupted only by enthusiastic clappers between sections. Maestro Udagawa retained full control of this colorful work, with his players responding to the shifting subjects and achieving exciting climaxes.

Many musicians displayed their skills during the evening -- clarinetist David Halpert wailed a sinewy, attention-grasping opening of the Gershwin Rhapsody, setting us up for the excitement to come. Ellen Watters Sullivan brought the cello to a lovely, sustained passage that might tempt us for more, so beautifully done. The young conductor surely has good material to work with, but his magic has been in summonsing their improved performance and finding ways to bring a more cohesively integrated texture and elevated accuracy to these players.

Once more, Millie Rich, the symphony's savior through many years, put it honestly before the concert began: "Yoichi is the best thing that has ever happened to this orchestra." Even the unwelcome snow and cold of the evening could not keep music lovers away from our ever-growing orchestra and its charismatic conductor.

Reprinted with permission from the Melrose Free Press, November 10, 2005

December 2, 2005

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