Serbian Night at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States  Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Sibelius  Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, Muhai Tang (conductor), Zeljko Lucic (Baritone), Carnegie Hall, New York  10.9.2014 (JR)

Tchaikovsky:         Marche Slave
Verdi:                    Arias from Macbeth and Rigoletto
Sibelius:                Symphony No. 2

This was the US Debut tour for the 91-year old Belgrade Philharmonic under their Principal Conductor, Muhai Tang. I have known Tang for many years: he was for some while Music Director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra.

The Friends of the Belgrade Philharmonic were formed in 2012 to raise funds for this tour which took in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington before arriving at Carnegie Hall.

The concert was full of surprises. I did not spot Barack Obama in the audience but we launched straight into the US National Anthem so the American contingent in the audience stood to attention, hand on heart. I don’t know if the Serbian Ambassador to the US was present, but the Serbians in the audience (who seemed to be in the majority) stood. Both flags adorned the stage, left and right.

Then on to Marche Slave or the Slavonic March as it said in the playbill. I had never realised the Serbian connection to this piece, a staple of every Tchaikovsky Night at the Albert Hall. The piece was inspired by the Serbian-Turkish War of 1876-78 when many Russian fighters fought with the Serbs against the Turks, Tchaikovsky employing Serbian folk tunes for the purpose. The orchestra attacked the piece with vigour and decibels.

Baritone Zeljko Lucic (courtesy of the Met) then took centre stage and entertained us with arias from Macbeth, Rigoletto and, by way of encore, Un Ballo in Maschera. He has a firm strong voice (he filled the hall with ease), sure intonation and can act – but the audience and orchestra really appreciated him for quite another characteristic – he is Serbian. Right at top of his register the voice dried up, a shame he had no water to hand. The Serbs in the audience cheered him wildly. In between the arias the orchestra gave us some little heard ballet music from Macbeth.

The next surprise of the evening was that the Serbians managed to successfully evoke the wild, open spaces of Northern Finland, although at times the woodwind and brass were rather too raw for comfort. Tang wove the phrases mellifluously, ensuring ensemble whilst highlighting details and controlling dynamics. There had clearly been a great deal of rehearsal for this work and this paid off especially in the closing pages when Tang built up the tension from ppp to fff to bring the house down.

There were however more surprises to come: two encores, both Serbian folk tunes. The New York Serbian benefactors duly anointed Tang, who is Chinese, an Honorary Serbian and wrote out their cheques.

John Rhodes

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