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Rach of Ages
The MSO's all-Rachmaninoff program.

Joyce Yang performed Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto this weekend.

Sometimes, a concert doesn’t end like a Hollywood movie—with an explosive flourish and rousing cheers.

Take this weekend’s all-Rachmaninoff program from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, for example. A mini-survey of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s career—from early through more mature work—ended with the “choral symphony” based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Bells.” The tentative applause after the final movement was understandable, not because the performance lacked spirit or intelligence, but because “The Bells” ends with a subdued acknowledgement of mortality—the bells signaling the end of  “the dream of bitter life.”

But through most of the four-movement symphony, there was thundering rapturous life, mostly due to the power of Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. In the second movement’s tender paean to love, the chorus offered whispered answers to soprano Tatiana Monogarova’s gentle celebration of wedded bliss. And they exploded in the third movement evocation of the chaos and destruction of modern life. But the final toll seemed to cease without warning, with the voice baritone Hugh Russell seemingly lifted into eternity by the composer’s harmonies that seemed to shift from earth to heaven in a few cadences.

The Bells was a fitting contrast—an example of Rachmaninoff at the height of his powers—to two early works on the program. Pianist Joyce Yang concluded her four-concert survey of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra, playing the First Piano Concerto, written when the composer was only 18 years old. The piece is a demonstration of the Rachmaninoff’s renowned virtuosity more than his gifts as a composer. And Yang had no trouble demonstrating her own formidable talent: Blazing double-octave runs, delicately articulated arpeggios, and—despite her petite stature—powerfully struck block chords. In the second movement, Yang didn’t hold back on the aching rubato of the first theme, letting it float gently into the air from far above.

The concert opened with the early tone poem, The Rock, in which one could hear Rachmaninoff’s debt to Tchaikovsky and other colorists.

Edo de Waart, as usual, brought a sense of discipline to even the most spectacular passages of the concert, which made them all the more stirring and gorgeous.

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