Italian conductor Gaetano d’Espinosa is currently doing the rounds of Japanese orchestras. Initially he started out conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra in December, having entered Japan just before the borders closed to foreign nationals (which remain closed). He has since been the saviour of several orchestras, standing in for many of his colleagues who have not been able to come. He conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Osaka Philharmonic in December, he is replacing James Conlon in the Der fliegende Holländer at the New National Theatre Tokyo later this month, he conducts the Kyoto City Symphony Orchestra in February and, on this cold January evening, he led the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra at Suntory Hall in a programme of mainly French music, replacing Marie Jacquot.

Naoko Yoshino
© Akira Muto

Inevitably, the original programme, an attractive mix of rare French repertoire including works by Méhul and Massenet, had to be modified, but it was a great joy that we got to hear François-Adrien Boieldieu’s Harp Concerto performed exquisitely by distinguished harpist Naoko Yoshino. The concerto was written early in his career, before he became popular opera composer, and was intended as a showcase for the newly developed harp by Érard. An elegant and classically structured work with virtuosic flourishes, arpeggios and trills, which may sound somewhat conventional to our modern ears, it must have sounded pretty innovative at the time.

Yoshino performed with such poise and precision, that every note seemed sparkle, creating a wonderfully warm and resonant sound. One could only marvel at her artistry: the technical control of the arpeggios and trills (and even harmonics) and the elegance of phrasing. In particular, she brought out the bel canto qualities of the mournful second movement, and the lively Rondo finale (also in the minor key) was full of contrasts in mood, capped with a short but brilliant cadenza. The orchestral part is lightly scored, but d’Espinosa made sure the ensemble was tight and lively, and maintained the flow of the music well. The audience was further enraptured by Yoshino’s solo encore, Glinka’s Nocturne in E flat major.

Gaetano d'Espinosa
© No credit

The concert opened in style with a seasonal favourite, the overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II. A potpourri of the principal tunes in the operetta, d’Espinosa conducted with elegance and vibrancy, and without sentimentality, bringing out the rich sonority of the YNSO string section, and some mellifluous contributions from the woodwinds. He handled the transitions deftly, although he did have a tendency to play around with the tempo quite a bit: even the customary slowing down at the end of phrases and the accelerandos felt exaggerated.

Two Ravel works comprised the compact second half: Le Tombeau de Couperin suite and the ever-popular orchestral showcase, Boléro. The four nostalgic dance movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin were painted with broad brushstrokes rather than the neat and detailed touches appropriate for Ravel’s delicate orchestration from the piano suite. The opening oboe solo in the Prélude was not quite nimble enough, and sometimes the lush strings would overpower the woodwind solos. Still, there were some poignant moments in the Menuet, especially in the darker trio section, in which one felt the reference to the loss of his friends in the war.

Boléro is always a crowd-pleaser, and often a vehicle to show off the soloists of the orchestra. Yet this performance was not so much a display of individual virtuosity (there were some fluffs in the solos) but an ensemble piece bringing out the varying combinations of instrumental sonority. This approach created a warm and congenial atmosphere culminating a grand climax, but lacked the overarching sense of tension.