An Auspicious Debut for Diego Matheuz

CanadaCanada Moncayo, Mozart and Berlioz: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Diego Matheuz (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, BC, 1.11.2014. (GN)

Moncayo: Huapango
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K.595
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

This concert was originally planned as a collaboration between celebrated Canadian pianist Marc-André 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 conductor changed to the up-and-coming 30-year-old Venezuelan, Diego Matheuz. Having been cited by 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 Mattheuz’s debut, and it changed the focus of the concert.

So, what sort of impression did this young conductor make?  Matheuz opened with Jose Pablo Moncayo’s colourful Huapango, a modern Mexican composition with lots of brilliance and passionate flow, anchored to a folk core. The young conductor certainly dove right in, bringing great enthusiasm and sparkle, 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—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. 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. Much of the time I noted the winds: precise, strongly articulated and often sensuous. This was quite a success. The famous Waltz was also full of colour but seemed to describe less a French imperial ball than 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 added a tangible frenzy and cacophony to the proceedings through its strong, biting interjections; the world of Villa-Lobos or Stravinsky’s “Shrovetide Fair” was not far away.

Latin colour turned out to be the defining characteristic. 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 received a very strong, big-boned treatment—again, the rhythmic pulls and pushes rather Spanish in feel but generating an almost Russian intensity as the end approached. Though the double bass surges had extra dramatic emphasis, the “Witches’ Sabbath” turned out to be more powerful than macabre—but certainly good enough to bring down the house and show off the conductor’s command and the orchestra’s virtuosity. While there were clearly style issues, Matheuz’s slant was a refreshing change.

Mozart’s 27th and final piano concerto ended up as somewhat of a mixed bag, not fully establishing its serenity and flow. The opening orchestral ritornello was somewhat cautious with overly-clipped string phrasing and a tendency to soften the last notes of phrases. Of course, when Hamelin entered, the sheer beauty of his runs and trills plus the strength of his dramatic point did take us some distance, and there was plenty of exciting execution. The following Larghetto seemed more experimental, with the pianist in a more improvisatory mood. Some of the phrasing struck me as slightly too pretty but a lot of it was interesting, and twice I heard left-hand notes that I had never noticed before—almost 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, and 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, suggesting little more than a child’s jig. Perhaps the gods were telling the pianist something: Hamelin actually did fluff one run later on, which I have never seen him do. The whole movement was essentially athletic and playful with a fair amount of drama towards the end—a different sort of interpretation, which probably needs more overall focus.

 Geoffrey Newman

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