The all-Beethoven extravaganza at Jordan Hall, including Nan Ni’s prize turn for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts’s Fou Ts’ong International Piano Competition, found Channing Yu and the Mercury Orchestra in great form in the best of all possible concerts in Boston on Saturday night.
Beethoven’s Overture to Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy “Coriolan” begins in coiled turmoil, then ambivilaltes between a mother’s blessing and macho aggression before concluding in tragic ambiguity as the curtain would have risen. Like other 18th– and 19th-century incidental music for plays and melodramas (one thinks of Purcell, Mendelssohn, and Grieg) it anticipates film scores. Yu opened with sharp-elbowed slashing tutti chords in a cavalry charge which went strong on the heroic and violent strokes and light on the contrasting campfire redemption, but the band mastered the quick turns in appropriately stark alternation. As the compact overture petered out without much tension, Yu conjured an exhausted fighter who passed away in his bed rather than a polarizing figure dying overmatched at his own hands.
For many in the crowd, the main event registered as Nan Ni’s prize-bout in the Emperor Piano Concerto. The NEC Master’s candidate under Bruce Brubaker fought the Mercury players to a glorious draw in this exhibition match. Her opening mini-cadenza disclosed a confident, accurate, powerful articulate interpreter who carefully eyed the competing orchestra, jabbing, punching, and holding as directed by Beethoven and her artistry. She could also sing with limpid refinement in the adagio and produce exquisitely vanishing pianissimos that truly told when they emerged from the sometimes-overpowering orchestra. Her trilling bridge to the Rondo clearly won that round. Whether in the spotlight, or serving as a member of the ensemble, she evidenced prize-winning chops. Yet I could not help remembering Russell Sherman’s 1989 BSO appearance in the concerto on very short notice with no rehearsal. He led Seiji Ozawa on a merry chase with sinuous subtlety, alarming and welcome surprises, as well as zen patrician power. Richard Dyer breathlessly wrote “His playing was original in conception, ringing in sound, free in rhythm….To accompany this requires the reflexes of a cat, and Ozawa has them…”. As she relaxes into maturity, Ni will no doubt discover that the space and time continuum between the notes matters, and she will earn the freedom to take liberties.
Beethoven’s Fifth rat-a-tatted more with Morse telegraphy than thunderbolts of Fate initially, yet it quickly built up charging impetuosity. Headlong and heedless of danger, the big, confident, committed sound worked; Channing’s timekeeping and ability to inspire produced something memorably granitic and irrepressibly gigantic. One could rue imprecision of attacks, some smarmy tuning in the four-person cello section, brass that mostly played too loud, (trombones excepted), but one could then give grateful callouts to all the winds, and tympanist Eric Cortell, who, showing off the most mallets I’ve ever seen, gave a masterclass in can coloration.
Yu could also consider taking more time in places. He could have raised his arms and held us in his thrall before making a theatrical downbeat to begin the Fifth. He might also awaken his left arm as an instrument of phrasing, giving more thought to how notes and phrases swell and end; Coriolan and the Fifth are not just about dramatic contrasts and rapid leaps to fff…though mostly. The orchestra remained very much up for the count in the 29 bars of hammered C Major chords at the end.
In Mercury’s raucous, gratifyingly gritty, fierce, exciting, and deeply committed community traversal, muscle, sinew and brain proved equal to fate’s challenges.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer