Echoes of the Golden Age in CSO’s Tuesday performance

 

Guest conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater.

Guest conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater. Photo by Megan Tan.

John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

Concert programs in the so-called Golden Age of American Orchestras (defined roughly as the time during which one began listening to orchestral music seriously) often opened with an overture, presented a concerto before intermission and a symphony after.

If Tuesday evening’s Chautauqua Symphony concert didn’t always conjure the Golden Age, the programming strategy largely did so. On the podium was the Bulgarian-born Rossen Milanov making his CSO debut. Milanov’s training has a Golden Age flavor, too. The artistic director of The Philadelphia Orchestra at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts is an experienced opera conductor, the opera pit being the traditional training ground for old-school maestros.

So it was not surprising that Antonín Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture,” which could have been written for a comic opera and is as sure-fire a curtain raiser as one could want, bubbled along happily. But the middle section of this tripartite overture explores more thoughtful territory, and here Milanov summoned a dark, moonlit world that sounded like a precursor of Gustav Mahler’s intermittently spooky Fourth Symphony. It was a nice touch to contemplate before the Bohemian high spirits returned to close the piece. Milanov’s broad smile when taking bows seemed to be mirrored in much of the large Amp audience.

Mozart’s final piano concerto, K. 595, is a different creature, a work of almost radical simplicity. Themes are clear and almost childlike in their purity. Of course, this is Mozart, and that means there is profundity, too. Pianist Angela Cheng got closest to it in the Larghetto movement at the concerto’s literal and emotional center. Her phrasing, respectful all evening long, was nearly vocal here, taking the breaths that make the music sing.

Milanov accompanied with great sensitivity and used string vibrato (or the lack of it) to expressive purpose. The outer movements were less profound and not always accurately played, but the appreciative audience largely got the message. Not so my neighbor, who pronounced the sprightly concluding Rondo “Saturday morning
cartoon music.”

The suite Richard Strauss drew from his opera Der Rosenkavalier was presented immediately following the Mozart and came from a different sensibility altogether. This was music aimed at the last row of the house, grand of gesture, swollen with ambition and, to this listener’s ears, self-consciousness. Ostensibly set in the Vienna of Mozart’s time, Strauss’s opera was a product of the Vienna of Freud’s time.

The music is soaked in nostalgia — for lost love and a lost grandeur. Like Mozart’s deceptively simple concerto, it is music of great sentiment that tips into an unavoidable sentimentality. Milanov asked for a generous plasticity of tempo, and while he didn’t always get it, the big moments — the shimmering “Presentation” music and the impossibly grand waltz tune — made an appropriate effect.

That was when an echo of The Golden Age — of Vienna and of the American Orchestra — was faintly audible if you listened closely enough.

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

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