REVIEW: CSO, Lee, Scaglione exhibit ‘masterful command’ of symphonic giants

Guest Review by: Leah Harrison

On Thursday evening, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra presented two works that were likely unfamiliar to its audience, followed by Dvořák’s nationalistic Symphony No. 6. The ensemble exhibited enthusiasm for Kodály’s suite from Háry János and Bottesini’s first concerto for double bass, and a masterful command of one of symphonic literature’s giants.

Guest conductor Case Scaglione led the orchestra with great elegance and efficiency, drawing forth a colorful and eager performance. Kodály’s suite was extracted from Háry János, his folk opera depicting an old Austrian soldier spinning tales of his wartime heroism to anyone who will listen. Being both a stage piece and one narrating imaginary events, the animated quality of the music is quite important, which the ensemble expertly delivered.

We heard the tinkling of Viennese clocks, and then a sorrowful viola solo in the “Song” movement, which also showcases the truly distinct hammered dulcimer with virtuosic licks. The brass section was able to show off in the “Battle and Defeat of Napoleon,” the trombones blending so perfectly that I had to look to confirm that three instruments were playing instead of one. This was followed by one of the tuba’s greatest moments in symphonic literature, when the bass instrument triumphantly growls over a sparse snare, inspiring the rest of the brass section to chime in. The Intermezzo provided the satisfying, full-bodied Slavic tune, followed by glittering, playful themes that sounded like they came from a toy-maker’s shop to close the suite. While this piece is not obscure, it is not performed enough, and it was a delight to hear it at Chautauqua.

Owen Lee, who is principal of the double bass section in the CSO, performed as soloist for Bottesini’s Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor. The double bass is rarely heard in its solo capacity, and I think it’s fair to say several eyebrows were raised at how effortlessly Lee was able to draw forth beautiful and intricate melodies in the first movement. Certainly, a solo part explores the instrument’s range more fully, and some surprisingly delicate themes were heard from the stage, with Lee draped over his instrument in full collaboration with it.

The purity and ease of the bass’s singing voice was again remarkable in the Andante, though the third, more virtuosic movement pointed to the bass’s limitations. As Lee’s fingers leapt across the full range of his instrument’s neck with gymnastic agility, the sound was so quiet that it was hardly heard, even over a reduced and restrained ensemble. It seems absurd that such a large instrument would have trouble being heard, but the weight required for each pitch is simply not compatible with much volume at that speed. A ringing cellphone overpowered what looked like very rigorous and athletic playing, regrettably sounding like a concerto for cellphone and orchestra for a very long minute. Ultimately, Lee’s performance was generous and broadening, but I was left wishing Bottesini had thwarted concerto convention by leaving off the third movement.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 provided several more instances of whole sections sounding like one instrument; this seasoned group of musicians play remarkably well together. Scaglione kept lively tempos throughout and seemed to have a confident yet sensitive relationship to the ensemble. The second movement presented a tender, soaring horn solo, juxtaposed by a driving and agitated third movement. This work provides many opportunities for full, broad symphonic sound, which the CSO executes beautifully. The fourth movement asks for the full ensemble to deliver a delicate, timid theme, and this moment was one of the most engaging of the evening. Fluidity, sensitivity and flexibility define this orchestra, and it is always a pleasure to hear them perform.

Leah Harrison is a writer and editor specializing in the arts. She has written for the New York Philharmonic, Symphony magazine, The Charlotte Observer, and The Post and Courier. She is currently Spoleto Festival USA’s institutional writer and holds a master’s degree in historical musicology from The Florida State University and a second master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University. Leah was The Chautauquan Daily’s opera reporter in 2012.