Weigle, YNSO Impress with ‘Elektra,’ Orchestral Concerts

©Naoya Ikegami / Spring Festival in Tokyo 2024
Front row from left: Elena Pankratova sings “Elektra” with Sebastian Weigle on the podium and Allison Oakes to the right, with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.

Sebastian Weigle’s sixth year as the principal conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (YNSO) got off to a great start in April, the opening month of the 2024-2025 season, with a concert-style performance of Strauss’ one-act opera “Elektra” and orchestral concerts.

“Elektra” was performed at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan hall in Ueno, Tokyo, on April 18 and 21 as part of the Spring Festival in Tokyo, an annual feast of classical music staged at multiple venues in central Tokyo.

The YNSO is no novice at opera. The orchestra’s programs include at least one opera almost every season. Although most are concert-style performances, the orchestra sometimes plays in the pit for staged productions as well.

Weigle originally planned to conduct “Elektra” with the YNSO and the same cast in 2022, but the performance had to be canceled due to restrictions caused by COVID-19. The opera, based on the fateful family feud in the Greek tragedy “Elektra,” premiered in 1909 and is densely written. It is probably the loudest of all the Strauss operas. Under Weigle’s reliable and energetic baton, the YNSO gave an impressive performance, maintaining intensity throughout.

The performance was blessed with a star-studded international cast. Although it was supposed to be a concert-style performance with the orchestra on stage, the singers acted out their roles in the limited space at the front of the stage.

The title role was performed by Russian soprano Elena Pankratova, whose mellow voice and sincere acting highlighted the character’s sympathetic side. Japanese mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura was faultless as Klytamnestra, Elektra’s formidable mother. British soprano Allison Oakes was brilliant as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, and veteran German bass Rene Pape was majestic as ever as Orest, Elektra’s valiant brother. German tenor Stephan Rugamer with his radiant voice made the most of his limited time on stage as the pompous Aegisth, Klytamnestra’s lover.

For the concert on April 26 at Suntory Hall in Tokyo and another on April 28 at Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall in Yokohama, Weigle chose a delightful program fit for spring: Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.

The Brahms overture, which shows the vibrant and lighthearted side of a composer who tends to give off a serious impression, set the tone of the concert. Weigle skillfully handled the layers of the music, which borrows themes from student songs in Germany.

Today, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), whose romantic and melodious music defined film scores, is regarded as one of the most important composers for early Hollywood films. Born in Austria-Hungary, he was a precocious talent who built a successful musical career at a young age. Having Jewish ancestry, however, he moved to the United States in 1934 as the Nazis strengthened their influence in Austria.

Korngold wrote Violin Concerto in D major in 1945, incorporating themes from some of the film scores he had composed. The cinematic feel of his music is clear, such as in the evocative melodies and harmonies in the first movement and the fanfare-like F major part in the second half of the third movement, which reminded me of John Williams.

The soloist for the Korngold concerto was the talented Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens, making her YNSO debut. She grabbed the audience’s hearts with the beautifully phrased, long-breathed first melody. Weigle made a great impression with his impeccable handling of the concerto’s extremely complex ending.

The concert wound up with Beethoven’s fourth symphony, the most lightweight and carefree of the composer’s nine symphonies, despite its subdued and anxious introduction. Weigle led the orchestra briskly, and the YNSO responded earnestly throughout all four movements, with some particularly fine performances from the woodwinds.

The April performances were part of Weigle’s first of four visits to Japan to work with the YNSO this season, which opened on April 5 with a concert conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, a former principal conductor of the orchestra. Weigle’s next date with the YNSO is in June when he takes on Schoenberg’s symphonic poem “Pelleas und Melisande,” among other works.

©Koji Iida / Spring Festival in Tokyo 2024
Sebastian Weigle conducts the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra during the performance of “Elektra” at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito Ward, Tokyo.