MSO special concert really is special
Wednesday was a big night for Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Milwaukee Symphony’s assistant conductor: His first night before an evening crowd in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. The occasion was a non-subscription special featuring pianist Joyce Yang, a rising star who’s been brilliant in two previous appearances with the MSO.
They had a nearly sure-fire Tchaikovsky program: The lively Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, the Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”) and the Piano Concerto No. 1. Conductor, soloist and orchestra took nothing for granted and made the most of all of it.
Lecce-Chong’s exuberance and energy fit the Polonaise and the Sixth Symphony. He and the orchestra bought into its sonic brilliance and emotional extravagance and refreshed a too-familiar work.
The young conductor had thought the piece through and didn’t panic when the moment came. I admire the patience he showed with Tchaikovsky’s brooding introduction. He let the phrases unfold generously and broadly, which served both Tchaikovsky and Ted Soluri, who played that opening bassoon solo so beautifully. And when the first long phrase came to a halt, Lecce-Chong left plenty of space for the sound to decay and for us to consider what we’d heard before he moved on. This expressive, Romantic music requires a good deal of shaping by the conductor. Lecce-Chong’s assurance with the direction and weight of the phrase kept the music taut and flexible rather than flabby and aimless.
A few moments of slightly messy ensemble detracted but little from the first two movements. Lecce-Chong and the MSO really snapped into focus in the third movement. Their combination of speed, precision and force made for a thrilling Allegro molto vivace. I think the audience knew we still had the finale to go, but burst into cheers at the end of it anyway.
Yang played Rachmaninoff’s second and third concertos in prior visits. Her prodigious technique towered over those pieces, as it towered over the Tchaikovsky concerto Wednesday. Yang is a powerful player who doesn’t lose beautiful tone at high volume. Her speed seems limitless, and she articulates clearly at high speed.
I’ve heard this concerto at least 200 times; frankly, I wouldn’t walk across the street to hear it again. But something in the way Yang committed to every phrase drew me in and got me to listen ever more closely. She conveyed a global awareness of form quite beyond the emotional engagement of the music and the fun of her virtuosity. The conceptual clarity of her playing made it easy to hear not only the passing elements of form, but the subtle ways that Tchaikovsky brings back bits and pieces of the first movement in the second and third. This piece has never sounded as coherent and smart to me as it did Wednesday.
Yang’s tumultuous ovation prompted an encore, Earl Wilde’s lush setting of Gershwin’s The Man I Love. Yang rendered it with a dreamy legato that made us want to love her right back.
Next up for the MSO: Pops with Marvin Hamlisch 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Nov. 11-13) at the Marcus Center. Lecce-Chong will return to lead an eclectic program on the MSO series at the Basilica of St. Josaphat Nov. 18, 19 and 20. And doesn’t this sound juicy: Concertmaster Frank Almond and pianist Joyce Yang will play a Salon Series program at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Lynden Sculpture Garden.