Principal Guest Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Diego Matheuz, in one week conducted no less than five concerts, working with the orchestra, two instrumental soloists and a large choir. Further the two distinct programs included works by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich and tackled Beethoven’s epic Fifth Symphony.
Add to this effort rehearsals and a punishing media interviews schedule, and you’d have to agree that the young Venezuelan maestro had more than earned his frequent flyer points!
Although each program was part of a different series, and had distinctive programming, there were similarities. Each began with a showy work, designed to get the pulses racing, each introduced a fine young soloist and each concluded with a weighty work that showed the orchestra at its best. Unusually, I will consider both the concerts I attended in this single review for reasons that I hope will become clear.
First was a concert labelled Beethoven’s Fifth, which might lead an audience into thinking there would not be a concerto. But the full program was:
Shostakovich Festive Overture
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1
Beethoven Symphony No.5
Diego Matheuz was the conductor, of course, with Ray Chen the soloist for the concerto. Shostakovich also contributed the opening work, Festive Overture, whose name gave away the intent and the mood of the work. It was a curtain-raiser, if ever there was one. Declamatory brass was soon joined by percussion, some charming wind solos and the full force of the strings.
It was an interesting introduction to Matheuz’s style. A democrat (in terms of the equal attention he paid to all players), he was also quite self-effacing – until the reprise of the fanfare and a spectacular finish by the orchestra.
The opening movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 provided a contrast in style and an opportunity for the orchestra to show a different mood. The work began solemnly with cellos and basses to the fore, but soon Ray Chen joined in. The soloist quickly established his feeling for his instrument and the work, with lovely phrasing and control of dynamics. The audience was so intent on his performance that the entry of other instruments was scarcely noticed -except for the brass which seemed rather loud. However, the importance of instruments such as the tuba and gong, coupled with a minor key, lent a sense of foreboding to the end of this movement that was clearly intended by the composer.
The Scherzo that followed was an odd contrast, but it gave Chen the perfect opportunity to show he could play a fast violin – and stand out, even with a large contingent of strings behind him. Appropriately, he was even more animated in the short burst of gypsy or folk rhythms that end the movement.
Chen had more: lyricism that lifted the Passacaglia, with a violin that was both plaintive and powerful followed by a cadenza that dazzled with its display of technical prowess. So that all eyes (and ears) were on Chen as the concerto concluded in spirited style, the soloist standing out even from an orchestra of the quality of the MSO, having its own fun with the Burlesque and encouraged by Matheuz.
Chen chose to exit, however, with his own beautiful scoring of Waltzing Matilda, and a memorable duet with concertmaster Wilma Smith.
Matheuz and the MSO had their chance to shine after interval with Beethoven’s Fifth – and shine they did! Matheuz dedicated the performance to Claudio Abbado and had the orchestra deliver the all-important declamatory notes to start in a manner that was worthy of the late Maestro.
My copious notes marvelled as movement after movement, there were sections of the orchestra (and individuals) worthy of praise, until I was caught up in my own hyperbole, noting that in the final movement Matheuz “unleashed the power of a great orchestra”.
A fellow reviewer commented that she didn’t know what it was about Matheuz and the MSO but they work so well together. Excited members of the audience could be heard exchanging similar praise as we thronged out of Hamer Hall, with many saying it was the best performance they’d heard. My notes simply can’t add anything to that!
There was a similar reaction to the main work in the second Matheuz concert I heard, the Sibelius Symphony No.2. The full program comprised: Borodin Prince Igor Polovtsian Dances, Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini and Sibelius Symphony No.2.
With Diego Matheuz conducting, the soloist for the Rachmaninov was pianist Joyce Yang, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus joined the orchestra for the first work. Like the Shostakovich Festive Overture in the previous concert, this was a showy piece intended to get the blood racing while allowing the performers to shine.
The Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor by Borodin are instantly accessible (thanks to their well-known tune) but have plenty of surprising effects that only a full choir and orchestra could deliver. Matheuz’s best effort in this work was to pace it well and make the most of contrasting moods. Jeffrey Crellin’s oboe was a delight throughout, a reminder of the melody amongst the percussive sound. This was perhaps not a perfect performance in terms of clean entries and polish, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and an appropriate curtain-raiser for the next work, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.
The soloist was pianist Joyce Yang, elegant in black, and (so it was to become evident) entirely in control of her instrument. With a reduced orchestra (although with eight brass) this was nevertheless going to be a thrilling performance. Matheuz’s challenges were to allow the excitement while allowing the piano to stand out, and to exercise control of the dynamics as the theme developed.
This he did, in harmony with the pianist. Yang was in command of the contrasting demands made on her: lush treatment of the theme, slow chords, interspersed with chromatic scales, arpeggios and other technical challenges. It all seemed effortless (even though it could not have been!) which allowed the audience to simply enjoy the lush romanticism of the music – right through to the final typically Rachmaninov “chase”, the piano in the lead.
Yang completed her performance with a final demonstration of her technique and feeling for the piano with Chopin’s My Joy.
Finally, it was Sibelius, and his Symphony No.2, a complex work that focused attention on the conductor once again. Matheuz maintained his poised but restrained stance on the podium, the only concession to drama being the occasional sweep of his arms. Nevertheless the conductor “embraced” the whole orchestra in this work, with attention to detail including the dimuendos at the end of phrases in the first movement, the controlled swell of sound in the development and the huge climax at the end of the work.
It was a good choice to show the superb control Matheuz has over this orchestra, or the deep empathy they share – whatever the cause, the effect is one to delight concert-goers. Many will have booked already for Matheuz’s return in September when Nicola Benedetti is soloist with the MSO in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. With Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 Pathétique, these are works that are sure to show the maestro and players at their best.