Dallas — The Dallas Symphony fielded two surprises on Thursday evening, both involving young musicians. One was a piano concerto by 18-year-old Chase Dobson, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and currently studying at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. The other was the still young but somewhat older guest conductor Case Scaglione. The former is a nascent composer’s work in progress, and the latter is a finished and polished professional conductor.
Scaglione was quite impressive in his last appearance with the DSO in January, as part of the Remix series, when he delivered a near-perfect Appalachian Spring. He was even more impressive in front of the full orchestra, especially in the opening selection, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy.
Scaglione is the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic and obviously headed to a major career. His résumé includes all of the de rigueur credits for young conductors. He studied at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, winning the James Conlon Prize. Then he was a conducting fellow at Tanglewood, another required stopover. Further, he did his graduate work under Gustav Meier, whose name appears on almost every résumé of a working conductor today.
All this training is evident in his precise baton technique. His performance of the Romeo and Juliet was exhilarating. Using motions that are economical, musical and communicative, he delivered a moving performance. He lavished a big gesture here and there when he thought it would do some good but, hardly moving, he was able to build a huge crescendo by only vibrating like a coiled spring.
His performance of Schumann’s Second Symphony was not as successful as the Tchaikovsky. Of course, this is a very different piece. It is much more intellectual and the symphony itself fails for a couple of important reasons. One of these is that all of the movements are in the same key of C, mostly minor but ending in major. The work feels long because it is filled with repeats. Another weakness is that almost all the instruments play all the time, resulting in a pea soup texture and once you get there, the finale somehow falls short. Scaglione made a valiant effort to bring this dense symphony to life but he didn’t project a clear path through the musical thicket.
With a conductor like Scaglione and the wonderful Lucille Chung at the keyboard, Dobson’s Piano Concerto certainly received a good performance. You can hear the musical ancestry of many young composers in their early works. Even a completely original thinker like Beethoven showed the influence of Haydn. Dobson’s influences are multiple and it would be worthless to list them all here. In the future, he will be able to meld them into his own voice, but that hasn’t happened yet.
His compositional technique is hardly set as well. He relies on the sequence, some as rudimentary as the circle of fifths, throughout the concerto. There are times when the piano is relegated to short interjections while the orchestra plays and two extended cadenza passages have lots of virtuoso flourishes, but does little to expand on the musical materials. His orchestration is thick and frequently covers the piano, especially in passages where he writes the piano music in the bottom of the instrument (it’s hardest range to project).
Chung deserves a return engagement playing a major concerto for her efforts.
Young composers need performances and good ones. Too often, at best they will get an under-rehearsed reading with a student conductor that can be more discouraging than not hearing it at all.
It was a bold move to program a large-scale work by a developing composer on a subscription series of a major orchestra. A shorter piece might have been a better idea, such as an overture or descriptive piece. However, the audience enjoyed it and, with one very vocal and energetic fan leaping to his feet and leading the cheers, gave the young composer a standing ovation.