Ray Chen wins hearts and minds with Shostakovich while Matheuz has a few idiosyncratic ideas on offer.

Playhouse, Arts Center Melbourne

March 22, 2014

It may be that Gustavo Dudamel’s outstanding success as the conductor of his generation that has led other orchestras to seek out fellow graduates of the El Sistema program, in an attempt to recreate the wunderkind’s success. If so, Diego Matheuz, could be seen as that recruit for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, being appointed as Principal Guest Conductor in 2012. And with a near sold out crowd, the audience was clearly keen to hear the young conductor’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. 

An brisk and lively rendition of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture opened the performance. Special mention must be made to the exceptional blend from the low strings and low brass, a warm and solid foundation for the singing string melodies to skim across.

Australian violinist Ray Chen was the soloist for Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. A consummate performer, he displayed brilliant artistic and technical control in his exploration of this intensely emotional work. Chen should especially be commended on his ability to maintain the intensity of the more introspective first and third movements, never allowing the more delicate moments to be diminished in their emotional impact. Except for a few loose corners in the second movement’s opening call and response between soloist and ensemble, the performance was exceptional.

If such a sterling rendition of a very difficult concerto hadn’t won the audiences’ approval, Chen’s choice of encore sealed his status as an up and coming star. Addressing the audience directly, he promised a present to his home country, and delivered his virtuosic arrangement of Waltzing Matilda, complete with surprise cameo duet with Concertmaster Wilma Smith. Chen is the complete package for a 21st-century classical soloist – charisma, style, but most importantly, the artistic chops to back it all up.

It must be daunting for any conductor, to come up with his or her own interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – beginning with perhaps the most famous four notes of musical history. Matheuz presented a clear, but divisive reading. The usual rolling and constant momentum that pervades the first movement suffered from a few noticeable gearshifts. The two central movements however were stunning and the MSO has an exceptional pianissimo at its disposal. The rousing finale was interrupted by another strange tempo change, but overall this was an excellent afternoon.

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