Tom Strini

The MSO’s Rachmaninoff

By - Oct 9th, 2010 12:45 am

Joyce Yang. Opus 3 Management photo by Oh Seuk Hoon.

Pianist Joyce Yang brought a pointed attack, sharp rhythm, etched articulation and lightning speed to bear on the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Friday evening. She drew from the music qualities we don’t associate with Rachmaninoff: antic humor, sparkling wit, jazzy inflection, effortless brilliance.

Yang, working with an engaged and supportive Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, soared over technical difficulties and got straight to the fun of the music. Her fun became our fun, in that mysterious transference that occurs in concert halls now and then. You could just feel the whole crowd get with Yang as she played and swayed and crouched and bounced on the bench. (Her dazzling stage presence matters, all the moreso because it appears utterly natural.) As soon as Yang tossed off Rachmaninoff’s witty closing gesture, the audience leapt up as one to thank her for a good time.

This all-Rachmaninoff program showed the composer at his lightest and brightest (Rhapsody), gloomiest (Isle of the Dead), at his most delicate and touching (Vocalise, in the orchestral arrangement), and at his most surreal (Symphonic Dances, Opus 45).

In Isle, Rachmaninoff establishes a low, heaving motif (which gave the MSO’s superb basses good reason to throw their weight around). Climbing, striving lines push to climax after climax, but each time that low undertow pulls the music back down. It’s like climbing out of hell only to slide back down from the lip of the crater.

The Symphonic Dances could accompany a ball in the Satan’s mansion at the bottom of the pit. Dance impulses start fitfully, gather force, stumble to a halt. A creepy fanfare in muted trumpets repeatedly interrupts the waltz in the second movement. Abrupt shifts between 6/8 and 3/4 and a prominent tambourine part give a Spanish cast to the finale. But weird, static dream interludes stop the dancing more than once, and the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath, from the Gregorian Requiem) becomes more and more prominent. Dance all you want, Death calls the tune.

A more subtle sort of tragedy winds through the Vocalise, originally a song without words for soprano and orchestra. The melody, though as placid and exquisite as a butterfly, never finds rest. It winds on and on, seems ready to alight, but the anticipated cadence does not materialize or some odd suspension or anticipation in the harmony makes for unstable ground. That is why this beautiful music is sad.

I can tell you all this because de Waart and the MSO made it so easy to hear. They tuned and balanced to allow the ear to penetrate into the inner voices. Everyone seemed to understand his or her place in the harmony and the location in the phrase. Sections played as unified, expressive voices, and everyone approached the technical challenges from a high place. De Waart heard the particular sort of drama in this music — which is nothing at all like the drama in Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Liszt or Chopin or Sibelius — and put it before us in all its eccentric glory.

The concert took place at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, where it will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 9-10). Click here for links and ticket info.

Categories: Classical

0 thoughts on “Review: The MSO’s Rachmaninoff”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A wonderful program – Joyce is a delight to see perform. I was glad to find out afterwards that this is the 2nd of a 5 year overview of Rachmaninoff which she is will continue to be a part of….if I understood correctly.
    Will be attending again tonight… I hope Maestro de Waart is feeling better.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Meant to leave out the ‘is’. Suppose I could have just put in a /. No editing options from this end.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Strini:
    Thank you for your excellent reviews over the years, typified by this one. It is a great loss to not have you in the MJS, but a great relief to find you here. Your insights into the music are helpful, clear, incisive and enjoyable to read.

  4. Anonymous says:

    A solid review of a well designed program. I especially liked “Isle of the Dead.” Only after the concert, I looked up the photograph.

    The towering rocks would seem to have inspired the emphasis on lower register instruments – a great sound.

    “Rhapsody ..” was thrilling. The hard percussive edge added by Joyce Yang helped distinguish the piece from the traditional Rachmaninoff style.

    Although I liked the last half of the concert, these pieces took us back to the smooth, over-romantic style usually associated with Rachmaninoff. The presentation reminded me of Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My impressions: An all-Rachmaninoff concert is a little too much Rachmaninoff. (Though it was interesting to note how often he “sampled” Dies Irae.)

    The beginning of Isle of the Dead was very engaging. It was evocative and suspenseful, and not unlike a very good movie soundtrack. I also liked the concluding section of the work, though by that point it had lost it’s tension and morbidity. The middle section, with the extended climaxes had already dissipated my interest.

    The Joyce Yang showcase was exactly that. And we classical music lovers like to have our fun too! The rhapsody was like a circus-piece, full of thrills and spills, and the attractive Ms. Yang was completely engaged, and much fun to watch. The orchestrations were interesting, and allowed the piano to shine through the rest of the players. I couldn’t for the life of me figure how the long, slow (#18?) variation had any relationship to the original theme, but I won’t begrudge it. I probably need a second listen.

    Joyce Yang had a good five curtain calls on Saturday night, and did an encore that was faster and more percussive than anything in the Rhapsody. Talk about piling on! Of course, being in the balcony, I couldn’t quite make out the piece she introduced as she apologized for interrupting the all-Rachmaninoff program with her encore.

    After intermission, Vocalise was beautiful, lilting and well-proportioned. It the one piece that could have gone on longer. Fabulous melody, deftly exchanged among the sections, and a piece designed to hold one’s attention. I thought this was the best piece of the night, and the perfect example of what the orchestral Rachmaninoff does best (next to his 3rd piano concerto).

    The Symphonic Dances were marred initially by a woman on the main floor who spent the first two minutes of the piece trying to cough up a hair-ball. Edo should have just given up and started over. There were some very nice orchestrations in this piece; I liked the wind ensemble in the middle of the first movement. The flautist earned her keep as well. The waltz in the second section was teh second highlight of the night. Frank Almond handled his short solo exceptionally well.

    But overall, I’d say the concert was a mixed bag. I’ve been listening on Napster to sections of all of the pieces in the concert as I write this, and while on second hearing the “good” parts sound better than I remember them, the overblown and under-written sections just sound worse.

    It may be a disservice in this day and age to do an all-Rachmaninoff concert. I don’t think I’d necessarily want to hear an all-Haydn night, or all Ravel, or even all Brahms, for that matter. They are each of them great composers– with much to offer — but when I go to my six concerts a year I’m not looking for a college-seminar overview of a composer. Give me the variety. In another context, I might have found the Symphonic Dances much more engaging.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Robert, Michael and Chris. It adds so much when readers comment, especially so kindly and intelligently. — Tom

  7. Anonymous says:


    From Wikipedia –

    The slow eighteenth variation is by far the most well-known, and it is often included on classical music compilations without the rest of the work. It is based on an inversion of the melody of Paganini’s theme. In other words, the A minor Paganini theme is played “upside down” in D flat major. Rachmaninoff himself recognized the appeal of this variation, saying “This one, is for my agent.”[3]
    It is amazing that the inversion creates such a different and memorable effect.
    The encore on Saturday night was by Australian composer Carl Vine – apparently the First Piano Sonata which was a recital choice for Joyce Yang in the Cliburn competition in 2005. (On the CD sold at the concert.)

    By the way – the 2009 Cliburn competition is available as a webcast online. There are hours of quality video programming.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The Saturday night encore was actually by Lowell Lieberman(n?), the final movement of his “Gargoyles.” Played just as dazzlingly as the Rhapsody, which was breathtaking!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I stand corrected. I thought I heard Vine and associated the choice with the CD selection.

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