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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

MSO, Joyce Yang’s Dazzling Rachmaninoff

Classical Review

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I continue to marvel at what I’m hearing at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In only four programs, plus some regional touring, since beginning as music director, Edo de Waart has fundamentally changed the sound of this very good ensemble. Only a communicative master musician/conductor could do that. There is new attention to all the essential elements of orchestral playing. De Waart has also changed the way the orchestra is heard in Uihlein Hall by placing the musicians upstage, under the acoustic shell. The strings, moved off the apron of the stage, have benefited enormously, with more refined mix and blend coming out into the auditorium.

Last Saturday night was an all Rachmaninoff program, maybe too much in one concert, but the performance was memorable. It was fascinating to hear a technical conductor like de Waart applying clarity to a long-lined romantic work such as Symphony No. 2. The melancholy built into the score and the sense of phrase so cardinal to it emerged fully, but without added-baggage sentimentality. The clear-eyed pace and shape made the few deliberately chosen peaks sky high. It was interesting to see de Waart put down the baton to lead the third movement Adagio with his hands, an appropriate touch of human warmth. Todd Levy’s clarinet solo was captivating in this movement, as were the short and long phrases of the violins.

Joyce Yang, a 23-year-old Korean pianist, is making quite a name for herself, working with top conductors after bursting onto the professional scene at the Van Cliburn International Competition in 2005. Her performance of Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 explained why. She is an enormously talented musician with unusually formidable technique and personal charisma. Her every instinct with the music was genuine and exciting. The second solo piano section of the first movement of this concerto is where a pianist dazzles or doesn’t. Yang dazzled. The concerto only lacked the one thing she could not give it: physical strength that can make the piano roar when called for. It’s quite simply a piece built for a larger person. Nevertheless, the performance was a wonder.