Dallas — On Friday at the Dallas City Performance Hall, the first non-pops concert of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season set a very high bar. Is it possible that one of the concerts, eventually on the Top Ten list, would occur on opening night? And on a scaled-down chamber-sized concert presented in the casual setting of the ReMix series to boot? Well, if not, we have many wonders in front of us.
Some of the credit goes to the magnificent performances delivered by the selected members of the DSO. But the lion’s share of the credit goes to guest conductor Case Scaglione. His motions were crisp and economical yet expressive and exacting. There wasn’t a wasted motion to be seen. Yet the individual style of the three completely different composers on the program was perfectly realized in his minimal gestures.
The program started out with Mozart’s delectable Serenata notturna. Mozart uses an unusually assembled quartet: two violins, a viola and double bass in place of the expected cello. He contrasts this against the full string ensemble, a technique Mozart borrowed from the baroque era. Violinists Nathan Olson and Bing Wang, violist Ellen Rose and bassist Tom Lederer did the honors. The performance was absolutely delightful: serious when it needed to be and lighthearted when the rascally Mozart came out to play.
Scaglione stayed in the classical era for the next selection, but as seen through the lens of Igor Stravinsky: his Danses concertantes, a masterpiece of his so-called neoclassical period. This piece may have “danses” in the title but the other word, “concertantes” is the clue of the composer’s intention. Although this work has been choreographed many times, once by Balanchine himself, Stravinsky wrote this to be a non-danced concert piece for chamber orchestra.
An aside: Rachmaninoff did something similar with his massive Symphonic Dances. Although the styles of the two works by Russian composers could not be more different, one lushly romantic and the other clockworkish and spare, they were both written at the same time (1940-41).
The program ended with one of the great bonbons in music literature, Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals (1886) for chamber ensemble, complete with Ogden Nash’s clever narration (written much later in 1949) delivered unevenly by actress Sally Vahle. The composer quotes well-known pieces, but in unexpected settings. For example, the “Tortoises” movement struts to a dramatically slowed, and transposed down a few octaves, version of Offenbach’s famous can-can from his opera Orpheus in the Underworld. A movement titled “Pianists” is an imitation of the dismal drudgery of student pianists practicing scales.
From the not-insignificant position of Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert in 2014, Scaglione has launched a major career, the heights of which can only be imagined at this point. He is in demand internationally and has a wall full of top prizes in various conducting competitions (and you thought they were only for pianists).
Many conductors list the foremost teacher of conducting in our era, the now-deceased Gustav Meier, on their résumé (this writer included), but few deliver a performance that so embodies everything Meier taught. He would have been proud of Scaglione on Friday. “Invite the orchestra to play and then let them do it,” was Meier’s constant mantra.
So many conductors today demand that the orchestra play and then micromanage every note, constipating the players. Not so with Scaglione, he trusted the players to be the fine musicians that they are and let them play.
“Be the traffic cop when needed, but only then,” was another Meier-ism.
Scaglione was always there when needed. In the Stravinsky, a counting nightmare, his clear and precise beat pattern throughout delivered a crystal clear performance. But in some moments in the Mozart and Saint-Saëns, when solos were featured, he stopped conducting completely and let them play the music.
He delivered a virtuoso performance.
For years, American orchestras sought conductors with already established international reputations—preferably exotically foreign. But then we experienced a wave of young and dynamic homegrown conductors on their way up the ladder with spectacular success. But, alas, like for all of us, time is a relentless and cruel master. The formerly “young and dynamic” are now approaching middle age. Hopefully, modern orchestras will reflect on the success of the recently past generation of hot shot native conductors and be the first to grab the brightest ones on the horizon. Say, someone like Scaglione.