The MSO’s Rachmaninoff
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.
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.