IN: Reviews

High-Spirited Mercury Orchestra in Russian Program


Channing Yu to retire after next Mercury concert (file photo)
Channing Yu to retire after next Mercury concert (file photo)

Approbation lasting some four minutes flooded Mercury Orchestra and Chorale for its performance of Prokofiev’s Cantata from Alexander Nevsky. Nearly the same befell the orchestra alone and its conductor Channing Yu following their rendering of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. All this deservedly so, but a noticeable shortage of voices often missed recreating those huge warring and celebrating Nevsky throngs. Mercury’s soloists in the concerto flavored Tenth Symphony surprised over and again with some of the most ravishing resonance heard in Sanders Theater.

At Saturday evening’s all-Russian concert, it appeared that conductor Channing Yu yielded to his orchestra as much as he directed it. With a minimum of gestures, Yu might have been seen as another player in a team endeavor. His poise on the podium, especially before beginning a movement, also readied his audience, often guiding it into a meditative state.

The big ensemble burst with polished musicians who played with a spirit all their own, radiating a collective personality never shy of infusing life-like colors, moves.

During the times the Mercury Orchestra Chorale balanced, the outcome somewhat approximated the grand folkish feel of Nevsky. But there could be no power grabs by this chorale, part of the reason being the under-harnessed orchestral force in forte and louder passages.

The Mercury’s conclusion to “Song About Alexander Nevsky” embraced the nationalistic convincingly. “The Crusaders at Pskov” evolved into fully developed captivating planes of devastation from the brass.  The deeply lamenting strings took to that melody that would flower in the sixth movement. The upbeat marching of Mercury carried out the brief optimism of “Arise, People of Russia.”

The biggest of the seven movements “The Battle on the Ice” needed to grow or build more, rather than attempting to promote action via sheer volume. Russian-born mezzo-soprano Natasha Novitskaia, attired in an improbable green sequined low-cut gown, was the soloist in the heart wrenching “The Field of the Dead.” While her oboe-like voice reached out, more raw emotion would have given the song what it really needed. With some orchestral fun, swirling winds and all in the Cantata’s final number, again the chorus was still trying, with limited success, to make an impact on “Alexander’s Entry into Pskov.”

From the Eisesnstein movie
From the Eisenstein movie

In Dmitri Shostakovich’s near hour long Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93, unusually long stretches of time are scored for solo instruments. Clarinetist Sylvain Bouix’s clear-throated perfectly arched theme, the warmly, deliciously outspoken bassoon of Daniel Beilman, and Brian van Sickle’s opulent flute were a few of many standouts. Of the four movements, it was the second, the Allegro, that was a truly terrifying joy ride that wholly thrilled. Once the third movement was underway, the ubiquitous theme took on more personality somewhere in the frame of mischievous, sneaky, coaxing, the march assuming a sardonic mood. Two laughing bassoons commented on the remarks of the English horn and oboe. A most welcome orchestral transparency continued throughout the final movement, which, by the way, did not blast away as did the two climatic passages in the opening Moderato.

A few unattended nuances and moments of stalled momentum hardly mattered in the end. Together, Mercury and the Tenth made for a fine fit, the give and take of the conductor and orchestra a revitalizing adventure.

Mercury’s next summer concert, and Yu’s final one with the orchestra, includes works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Sibelius to be given August 12th at 8 pm, Sanders Theater.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I read Mr. Patterson’s review of the Mercury Orchestra concert and take partial exception to his review particularly towards the Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky. Admittedly as one of the members of the chorale (which may bias me)it seemed he went a bit hard on the size of the group and also on what the soloist wore as well as her tone. At intermission I spoke with several people in the audience including several musicians attending one who spoke fluent Russian and another who had sung the work some years before. They said every word from where they sat could be made out and our soloist said likewise. Given this and the audience response I think I’ll go with their conclusions.

    This said, Mr. Patterson was spot on with his review of the Shostakovich where there were moments of clarity I had never quite heard before and one place in the third movement where the tam-tam was barely touched and a somber wind solo followed in a haunting echo that still stays with me to this moment. Then not enough can be said for Channing’s direction and musicianship with this concert and in ones past. Flat out he is superb to work with.

    Comment by Peter Barkley — July 23, 2016 at 1:36 pm

  2. I’ve played in the viola section of the Mercury Orchestra for many years. I’m a highly trained professional and have played under many big-name conductors in all kinds and sizes of instrumental configurations. I can tell you that none of what your critic says about Dr. Yu’s performance has anything to do with the art of conducting. I can tell you that none of what your critic says about the orchestra’s performance — what can he mean by “infusing life-like colors, moves,” anyway? I thought I was playing Russian music — has anything to do with the art of orchestral composition or performance. I can also tell you that the mezzo-soprano sang with so much “raw emotion” that she brought people to tears who don’t understand Russian. Although this is intended to be a good review, — I think — I do wonder what makes a green sequined gown, low-cut or otherwise, “improbable.” I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Patterson’s praise for our woodwind soloists, and I thank him for pointing out our transparency, for which we always strive. However, I can tell you that there weren’t any “unattended nuances,” — if you noticed the nuances, they can’t have been unattended, can they? — nor “moments of stalled momentum.” If there had been, they would have mattered very much indeed.

    Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Your critic knows a great many words. Next time could you maybe send somebody to review our concerts who doesn’t know quite so many.

    Comment by Susan Bill — July 23, 2016 at 6:01 pm

  3. As another one of the performers that evening, I will agree that Maestro Yu is an exceptional conductor to work with, who often gets extraordinary results. Also, while reviewers need to focus first on what did happen, I will only add that anyone regretting the size of the chorus should express gratitude that Yu didn’t adopt the full Joshua Rifkin treatment of all-metal Soviet-made strings and one chorister per part. It would have been a shame to do without many of the excellent singers we did have.

    Comment by Camilli — July 24, 2016 at 12:29 pm

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