Harth-Bedoya, Gerhardt combine for a crowd-pleasing evening


Alban Gerhardt performs Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

The buzz around the young conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya is that he’s in the running to succeed the departed Stefan Sanderling as the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s music director.

On paper, he’s a compelling candidate: young, full of energy and with a growing list of high-profile gigs (a protégé of Esa-Pekka Salonen, he was at Tanglewood last weekend). Harth-Bedoya looks great in a cowboy hat (check out his website), has a million-dollar smile and a crisp podium manner that projects confidence and energy. Like his mentor, he gets an admirably clear, focused sound from the orchestra — a necessity in the French music that made up two-thirds of his concert on Thursday evening, Bastille Day.

Clarity is the prize in the music of Maurice Ravel, perhaps the most French of composers. But it’s only won by not falling headlong into the voluptuousness of his dazzling orchestration. The “Rapsodie Espagnole” further seduces with local color (authentic, too: Ravel’s mother was Basque). It’s easy to overdo this, and one might expect the Peruvian-born Harth-Bedoya to assert his authority in music with a Spanish accent. To his credit, he did not, leading a performance of understatement and orderliness (also authentic; the composer’s father was a Swiss engineer) — perhaps a bit too meticulous, though the closing Feria, marked assez anime, danced.

The Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 is a young man’s piece, written when the composer was a comparative boy of 37 (he would live just short of half a century longer), and in the young German-born New Yorker Alban Gerhardt, it found a persuasive advocate. Gerhardt, who has a wide-eyed and expressive face, played the music with the proper measure of respect and fire, digging into the chewy opening theme with ardor. He could be graceful, too. Gerhardt made the little mock minuet of a slow movement, lovingly shaped by Harth-Bedoya, into a lyric arioso.

And he took some chances, interpolating octaves into one of the flashier moments in the closing Allegro. Why not? The Saint-Saëns is not exactly a monument of probity. Showing off is the point, and Gerhardt managed to do so without sounding vulgar or flippant. He made a strong case for the work and seemed to enjoy himself doing so.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 “Scheherazade” is by now so familiar as to be inconsequential, but listen closer and you hear strange snippets of Russian folk tunes and advanced, sometimes startling, turns of harmony. Stravinsky learned more from Rimsky-Korsakov than he would admit.  Harth-Bedoya’s admirable clarity of orchestral texture brought all of this out. Like Ravel’s “Rapsodie,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s four-movement symphonic suite can seduce with color, but the trick is for the conductor to be an Impressionist, not a Fauvist. This Harth-Bedoya largely did, though even he succumbed to the IMAX sensory density of Rimsky-Korsakov’s climaxes, which made an appropriately grand noise. And in the opening movement, he did something I’ve never heard: make the piece sound almost German. His tightly argued and impressively controlled approach transformed Rimsky-Korsakov into a Slavic Richard Wagner.

Harth-Bedoya’s tempo was quite plastic, and he gave his players wide interpretive latitude in the numerous instrumentals that adorn “Scheherazade’s” glittering, Fabergé-egg surface. This is a good way to win the hearts of your musicians — and perhaps ultimately, a job. The audience seemed to like it, too.

It would be nice for whoever is named the new CSO music director to have section players as distinguished as Emmanuelle Boisvert. For 23 years, Boisvert had been concertmaster with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before she fled the turmoil there less than two months ago to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Her presence at the back of the first violins was as notable an example of luxury casting as the venerable shed ever may have seen.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

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