Reviews ...

Melrose Symphony is back

... and better than ever

by Jackie Wattenberg

A long summer sans music is over.

On Saturday night, it was the season opener of our Melrose Symphony Orchestra (MSO) with a brilliant pianist, Michael Lewin, and of course our heart-warming conductor, Yoichi Udagawa, proving once again that he knows how to bring out the best in an orchestra.

We may have said this before--but our 89-year old symphony sounded better than ever. Udagawa has worked miracles with this all-volunteer band of musicians. Their advance in confidence and sharpness of tone was notable in the opening overture to "Semiramide" by Rossini, a work of constant climaxes and clashes that came off with Udagawa's usual energy and respect for the period and style, no compromise with tempos.

A group of soloists who sparked the performance include an impressive wave of brass--trumpet, Randy O'Keefe; trombone, Matt Hannah; and tuba, Rob Orr. Bright moments were also performed by our fine oboist, Carl Schlaijker; lively, audacious runs were played by flutist John Ranck; and on piccolo, Barbara Clement; French horn, Annalisa Peterson and clarinet, David Halpert.

Then came the world-famed pianist Michael Lewin in one of the few Mozart concertos in a minor key, "K.466 in D Minor," dashed off with electric flourish and technicality. The work opened with somber minor foreshadowing, broken by the pianist's entrance. Contrasting themes in the left and right hand were no problem for Lewin and soon he headed into the mostly major runs that were executed with brilliant facility. Program notes tells us that Mozart himself performed this, with no rehearsal, and that it was performed by Beethoven too.

Mozart here left no moments for a pianists's contemplation, but keeps the pianist on his toes without mercy--and Lewin showed no fear in entrancing scales throughout the work, at times curling delicately into pianissimos, entrancing to hear. The second movement holds the familiar, lovely and more legato melody, the orchestra and Udagawa both supportive and assured in their role. Any pianist who plays Mozart must have technical virtuosity, but I have rarely heard such displays of sheer speed! Superb control and magic in touch. The pianist well deserved the standing ovation.

Sibelius is a romantic composer of accessible harmonies and emotional themes, so his music is a responsive choice for audiences sophisticated or not. But it is not difficult to realize how impossible this work would have been for this orchestra B.U.--before Udagawa. The performance of this handsome work revealed with utmost clarity just how far he has brought our musicians. The lustrous tones required for various moods of the movements, the upper strings actually suddenly entering sections with a scintillating acuteness were benchmarks, long in coming and wonderful to hear. A violinist himself, Udagawa has had both the determination and the secret means of reaching those strings to improve their sound.

There is this teacher side of our conductor; before the Sibelius, he had musicians play the several themes from each of the four movements, noting their mood. In this work too, many instruments did noble solo work, too many to name. But it is a work of masterly progressions from serious, even ominous mood to rhapsodic, with his own Finnish-Swedish themes distinctive and often pastoral, akin to nature, with his own distinctive pressuring rhythms that captivate the ear's attention.

The orchestra brought all of this to an impressed audience. There may have been a little restlessness in the cellos in one brief section of their prominence, but our Melrose Symphony Orchestra is surely enjoying its finest quality in 89 years! What a joy for Millie Rich, the symphony's long-guiding star, and for all of us in Melrose.

Reprinted with permission from the Melrose Free Press

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