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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Concert Review: Stepping Into the Big Time

Associate Conductor Case Scaglione leads the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
On the Case--Scaglione at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
The position of associate conductor at a major symphony orchestra is not a glamorous job. They lead offstage brass ensembles (and choruses) in big works like Mahler's Resurrection and Strauss' Alpensinfonie. They run children's concerts. But once in a while, they take the main stage and lead an ensemble like the New York Philharmonic. For this week's subscription concerts (heard Wednesday night at the soon-to-be-renamed Avery Fisher Hall) it was the turn of NY Phil associate Case Scaglione to step onto the podium for a trio of 20th century classics.

The concert began with Claude Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, returning to the Philharmonic repertory after a multi-year absence. This Prélude featured exquisite playing from flute Robert Langevin and new principal clarinet Anthony McGill. However, taken as a whole this performancefailed to convince. Tempos were slow and the crucial entry of the strings sounded forced, with a too-long pause before the violins entry spoiling a sense of momentum.

The lone Violin Concerto by Alexander Glazunov presented a whole new set of challenges. This is a one-movement work in the Russian classicist school, with imaginative solo writing for the instrument that focuses on the unique and less-explored lower register of the violin. Soloist Joshua Bell responded with a dark, slightly dusky sound from his instrument, biting cleanly into the difficult double-stops that end the first section of the work.

The slow central part presents its own challenges, with Mr. Bell playing dream-like solo passages over the subtle shadings of the orchestral accompaniment. The acceleration into the final movement of the work seemed to come out of nowhere. This folk-like movement evoked Russian countrysides with Mr. Bell sticking to the low strings of his instrument--the droning sounds recalling the Russian folk-song experiments of the Mighty Handful.

The first half of this evening was variable, but the second, featuring Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony was much better. The first symphony written by Prokofiev since his return to Soviet Russia, the Fifth benefits from having brass writing that tubists and trombonists simply love to play. Prokofiev's big showy blocks of sound celebrate the turn in Soviet fortunes in the latter days of World War II. This is a flipside to the war symphonies of Shostakovich, bold, big-shouldered and bursting forth with humor and bright flourishes of brass and percussion.

The Philharmonic players drove hard into the solemn opening movement, creating a rich impasto of soumd as Mr. Scaglione's baton made broad brush marks. This is Prokofiev at his most guarded, the sound of a nation under assault slowly finding the road to victory. The movement gathered its shoulders and burst forth, its momentum entrancing the listener and pulling one to the edge of one's seat in a thrilling crescendo, The scherzo was played with precise, diamoind-cut strings and razor-sharp woodwinds, who shrieked a hang-dog melody over the chugging, persistent rhythms.

The slow movement allowed Mr. Scaglione to show the fine balance of this massive orchestra, with its dreamy passages that burst forth into a nightmare fortissimo. The finale is torn between bitter celebration and giddy irony (or is it the reverse?) with the jubilant orchestral alarums and flourishes interrupted by the string players in an angular melody that fights against the current. One is not sure if Prokofiev is being serious or having his joke--but with orchestral writing like this does it really matter anyway?
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.