The title of Sunday’s Masterworks concert with the Sarasota Orchestra was “Seeing Music in Fantasy.” And, although the title obviously referred to the fantastical, romantic music of Rachmaninoff (Piano Concerto No. 3) and Berlioz (“Symphonie fantastique”), the actual performance was more like “Seeing Music in Perfection.”
It was Dirk Meyer’s first turn on the podium leading a Masterworks program, and the Sarasota Orchestra’s assistant conductor and youth orchestra music director proved to be a model technician with all the right moves: clarity, musicianship and “stick” technique to burn. What he doesn’t yet have, however, is abandon.
And he proved, unwittingly, that without passion and the ability to lose one’s self in the total abandon of romanticism, one conducts the score (and musicians) to perfection but leaves the soul of the music behind.
Rachmaninoff may have written some beautifully lyrical — almost French — songs, but his orchestral works are muscular. The Piano Concerto No. 3 is lush, romantic, sensual and huge, which is why it’s been most successful in performances by the likes of Van Cliburn and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, two powerhouses with hands as big as feet.
Joyce Yang, the pianist with a technique one audience member described as “ … light and ripple-y,” was a perfect match for Meyer. Every note was picture-perfect, but both the flesh and the spirit were weak. There were moments the orchestra and soloist weren’t quite in sync, but, for the most part, it was a well-crafted performance that would have been much better suited to Schumann or Mendelssohn. (Her encore, a Gershwin song in an arrangement by Earl Wild, was pretty and gentle, but a bit over-pedaled.)
Berlioz’s “Symphony fantastique” is a big, sprawling fantasy-of-a-piece that shows how a brilliant composer can transform order into controlled chaos. Each of the five movements has a fantastical theme, from bizarre to whimsical, personifying an eccentricity that can only be expressed through the incredible array of orchestral colors of which Berlioz dreamed. It is an orchestral showcase, and it takes a virtuoso ensemble to play it, much less display all its colors.
The Sarasota Orchestra, in full force, did itself proud, from the magnificent duet between the onstage English horn and the off-stage oboe, to the mighty brass, timpani and sonorous strings. Much to his credit, Meyer held it all together, but one wishes, in the future, that he would allow himself to be less of a perfectionist and share more of his musical soul. This is more than a good orchestra — they’re verging on great. And they need abandoned, passionate inspiration much more than they need perfect leadership.
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