The Yale Symphony Orchestra has had a particularly eventful year. Not only was it its second in a row with a new conductor, but the venerable organization is also celebrating its 40th anniversary with a five-city summer tour of the Pacific Northwest. Last weekend the YSO, led by Toshiuki Shimada, capped its Woolsey Hall season with a memorable and polished concert that reaffirmed its status as the top undergraduate orchestra.
The evening’s program was both appealing and adventurous. No coddling the audience with light overtures here — instead, the orchestra dove right into Olivier Messiaen’s “L’Ascension du Christ.” This four-movement theological panorama is one of the composer’s early works; as such, it displayed many of his trademark individualistic harmonies, textures and moods, while also displaying his immediate influences (notably Debussy and Stravinsky) quite transparently.
The piece opens with a long chorale for winds, boldly led by principal trumpet Eric Nathan ’06. The third movement, a brisk orchestral dance, provoked spontaneous applause. The hair-raising final prayer for strings alone was played with admirable intensity. Though Messiaen’s music sprung from his deep religious convictions, even the non-devout (in this reviewer’s case, the Jewish atheistic) cannot help but be absorbed by its power and originality.
Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Organ” made an apt companion piece; the Messiaen often evoked the sound of that instrument with rich, sonorous chords. Poulenc’s work mixes his trademark witty melancholia with allusions to Bach and Couperin. Thomas Murray, Yale’s University Organist, deftly maneuvered Woolsey’s massive instrument. (The Newberry Memorial Organ features four keyboards that are used to control 12,600 pipes, the largest measuring 32 feet. The YSO’s entire string section sounded comparatively mousy.)
The highlight of the evening (one of the highlights of the season, in fact) was Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” The work is in a populist vein, forgoing the spiky experimentalism of the composer’s string quartets. Nevertheless, its uncompromising virtuosity and wide emotional scope remain challenging to musicians and audiences alike, over 60 years since its premiere.
The YSO surmounted these obstacles, delivering an engaging interpretation of this familiar piece full of unexpected twists. The mercurial moods of the first movement were rendered with admirable clarity, as were the brilliant woodwind duos in the second. The fourth movement was poignant and nostalgic, the fifth bustling and vivacious (though Woolsey’s acoustics souped up the intricately contrapuntal development section). My companion summed it up perfectly when she noted that “the entire orchestra seems to love this piece.” The galvanizing presence of Mr. Shimada has done the orchestra well; expect great things in years to come.