On the evening of Oct. 15, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada, opened its 2011-’12 season with a concert at Woolsey Hall. The program included romantic staples by Weber and Rimsky-Korsakov and featured Chinese violinist Sha in “The Butterfly Lovers,” a violin concerto by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Though inconsistent, the evening contained moments of inspired playing sufficiently exalted to make this performance an auspicious beginning to the season.
The program opened with Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to the opera “Oberon.” While the opera has slipped into obscurity, its overture retains a firm place in the orchestral repertory, and justifiably so. Tightly constructed and inevitable in its unfolding, the work generates tremendous excitement and is an ideal concert opener. However, it presents the orchestra with potential pitfalls, and the Yale forces disappointingly succumbed to several of these. The opening notes, intoned by the horn, are notoriously devilish to play, and the performer’s obvious difficulty in executing the passage further bolstered this reputation. The exposition was marred by tawdry ensemble during the first theme, while the orchestral tutti was decidedly top-heavy, with violins and trumpets obscuring inner voices and preventing the audience’s full appreciation of Weber’s contrapuntal craft. Exceeding dynamic boundaries would be a recurring problem in the violins and percussion all evening, though at several places in the overture the orchestra proved itself capable of producing a burnished, if tubby, color.
Featured with increasing regularity on American concert programs, “The Butterfly Lovers” violin concerto is an attempt to crystallize in music a Chinese legend in the vein of programmatic concertante works à la Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” or Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote.” While not a galvanizing masterwork on a par with the aforementioned titans, it is nonetheless deserving of interest. Furthermore, its pentatonic melodies and lush, Vaughn Williams-esque orchestration provided the YSO with the ideal platform on which to showcase its strengths. While the music sometimes bordered on kitsch, the strings played with a luxuriant sound, milking it for all it was worth. The woodwinds and harps contributed further color to the ensemble. Violinist Sha’s sinewy tone and elastic glissandi served the music well, though overexuberance during fast passages resulted in the occasional technical infelicity. While the solo part provided many opportunities for decadence and tastelessness, Sha’s performance was elegantly phrased, refreshing in an era where humility and service to the composer seem to be last on the list of a performer’s priorities.
The second half of the program consisted solely of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” A massive orchestral suite lasting the better part of an hour, “Scheherazade” is arguably its composer’s finest achievement. Rimsky-Korsakov lavished on this score both the resources of his ripe orchestral imagination and his gift for incandescent melody. However, for all of Rimsky-Korsakov’s strengths, formal tautness was not one of them, leaving it incumbent upon the performers to project a sense of forward motion and architectonic integrity. In the sprawling second movement, “The Story of the Kalandar Prince,” the tendency of the violins to overindulge in the sweeping melodic bits had the net effect of giving away “too much too soon,” reducing a suggestive and erotic musical narrative to a series of disjointed episodes. Fortunately, the orchestra more than redeemed itself in the third movement, “The Young Prince and Young Princess.” The YSO delivered the movement’s buoyant cantilènes gloriously, offering sumptuous string tone augmented by exemplary playing in the woodwinds and horns. Concertmaster Jacob Joyce gave an able reading of the formidable violin solos, and he was enthusiastically received by the audience following the performance. To this ear, however, the evening’s finest players were principal cellist Leo Singer and principal woodwinds Victor Wang, flute, Sonja Peterson, oboe, Matthew Griffith, clarinet, and Gabriel Levine, bassoon. In particular, Mr. Griffith’s coy rubato and Mr. Singer’s voluptuous tone lent a frank sexiness to the solo passages, further enhancing this performance’s effectiveness.
Deserving of praise is Maestro Shimada’s podium presence, which forgoes mere showmanship for economy of gesture without ever coming across as perfunctory or cold. Under the guidance and discipline of such a tastefully expressive musician, the Yale Symphony Orchestra looks poised to grow following this promising season opening.