Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano; VSO/ Diego Matheuz, Works by Moncayo, Berlioz and Mozart, Orpheum, November 1, 2014

This concert was originally planned as a collaboration between celebrated Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin and venerable conductor Raphael Fruhbeck de Burgos.  Due to the unfortunate passing of the latter in June, some programming changes had to be made: a different Mozart concerto was eventually scheduled and the up-and-coming 30 year-old Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz was brought in.  Having been cited by the Gramophone magazine as a young conductor  “on the verge of greatness”, and most recently appointed as Principal Guest Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony, there was considerable anticipation of Matheuz’s debut, and it changed the focus of the concert.

So, what sort of impression did this young conductor make?  Matheuz  brought along Jose Pablo Moncayo’s colourful piece, Huapango, a modern Mexican composition with lots of brilliance and passionate flow, anchored to a folk core.  As the concert opener, the young conductor certainly dove right in, bringing great enthusiasm and sparkle to the work, and exhibiting strong orchestral control.  Virtually everything was right about the orchestra’s sound, the strings so clean and full of life, the winds strongly shaped and the brass punctuations crisp and incisive. An enjoyable work too, except that it finished so abruptly that no one quite knew that it was over. 

The big event was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, much more of a challenge for a young conductor. Again, the opening was particularly fine, generating considerable plasticity from the gossamer-like strings, then keeping things forward moving and alive by a combination of selective rubato and explosive attack.  One really got the idea of shifting landscapes, of different dreams and fantasies, of different colours and sensualities, with all the ominous undercurrents in place.  I noted the winds much of the time: precise, strongly articulated and often sensuous. This was quite a success. The famous Waltz was also full of colour but here we seemed to move less to a French Imperial Ball and more to a rustic Carnival setting, earthy and Latino.  At fairly deliberate tempos, this movement emerged as less lean and mercurial than usual, its nerve ends more exposed and projected.  The famous cornet solo seemed to add a tangible frenzy and cacophony to the proceedings through its strong, biting interjections.  Here the world of Villa Lobos or Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair was not far away.

Latin colour turned out to be the defining characteristic of this interpretation.  The following movement, rather than starting at a remote distance, was much more up front and strongly hued.  The opening cor anglais and oboe were louder than usual, setting the stage for a full flow of Mediterranean warmth, somewhat in the tradition of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. There was a lot of beauty revealed; I am just not sure that it was of the right type.  With all the expression earlier on, the striking timpani statements at the end had less contrasting force.  The last two movements are of course something a young conductor relishes.  They received a very strong, big-boned treatment, again the rhythmic pulls and pushes rather Spanish in feel but generating an almost Russian intensity as we approached the end.  Though the double bass surges were given extra dramatic emphasis, the Witches’ Sabbath turned out to be more powerful than macabre --  but certainly good enough to bring the house down and show off the command of the conductor and the virtuosity of the orchestra.  While there were clearly issues of style here, I enjoyed this slant on the work as a refreshing change. 

I am not sure how long soloist and conductor had to prepare Mozart’s 27th, and final, piano concerto, but it ended up as somewhat of a mixed bag, not fully establishing its serenity and flow.  I found the opening orchestral ritornello somewhat cautious with overly-clipped string phrasing and a seeming tendency to soften the last notes of phrases. Of course, when Hamelin entered, the sheer beauty of his runs and trills, and the strength of his dramatic point, did take us some distance.  And there was plenty of execution to get excited about.  The following Larghetto seemed more experimental, the pianist in a more improvisatory mood.  Some of the phrasing struck me as slightly too pretty but a lot of it was interesting. I did twice manage to hear left hand notes that I had never heard before.  They almost seemed like a new type of ornamentation. 

There is underlying pathetic quality to the dance figure of the Finale; superficially, things look happy, but underneath they are not.  I am not sure why Hamelin chose to stress only the former dimension.  As it was, the articulation of the opening figure seemed almost trite to me, suggesting little more than a child’s jig. Perhaps the gods were telling the pianist something: Hamelin did actually fluff one run later on, and I have never seen that before.  The whole movement was essentially athletic and playful with a fair amount of drama towards the end.  Anyway, a different sort of interpretation, not one that I am used to, and one that probably needs more overall focus.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014