Two Simpatico Spirits Combine on Saint-Saëns

Photos by Michael Polito and Sheila Rock

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 8, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Twenty years after her breakthrough recording of Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto, Han-Na Chang made her debut with the Charlotte Symphony last week. Only she wasn’t playing the cello as she was then, when Mstislav Rostopovich conducted the London Symphony. No, at the ripe old age of 33, Chang was our guest conductor and Cicely Parnas, 22, was our soloist – in the midst of a victory lap of her own with the Saint-Saëns.

ParnasPredictably, the concert perked up when the kindred spirits collaborated. The busy opening isn’t easy for the soloist to project in a concert hall. Among the recordings I’ve sampled – including two I own by cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline DuPré – only the one recorded by the Seattle Symphony by Gerard Schwarz with his son Julian as the soloist manages to truly balance orchestra and cello. So I suspect that legerdemain was accomplished at a mixing board.

Chang didn’t hold back in her accompaniment any more than Rostropovich had, but there was a little more snap to her conducting, a special relish for the sudden sforzandos. Some exquisite filigree from flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead adorned the opening Allegretto non troppo, instigating some sweet dialogue as Parnas played the slow section beautifully, more body suffusing her tone.

Somehow there was more space provided for her sound when Parnas returned to the uptempo climaxes of the movement. Yet there was no sense of her being hurled into these more passionate outpourings. The suddenness of the sforzandos halted the flow instead of prodding the soloist onwards, and I wasn’t as swept along as I am listening to the two London recordings.

The soft middle movement, a quaint Allegretto con moto, crept in without quite matching the delicacy you hear from Michael Tilson Thomas in his fine 1993 recording, also with the Londoners, behind Steven Isserlis. Gradually, the orchestra in staccato was partially won over by the cello’s legato, so a rather starchy minuet eventually became a pleasantly flowing waltz. Here there was more admirable delicacy from the woodwinds with Parnas trilling behind them.

With no pause between the middle movement and the concluding Allegro non troppo, the dialogue between the Chang and Parnas came into fullest flower. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky keyed the return to the fast tempo, and the snappiness of Chang’s approach worked perfectly. The big orchestral passages were played speedily, zestfully, and precisely – with Parnas answering in kind. (The Chang and Isserlis are at the head of the class among the Saint-Saëns recordings I’ve heard. Ultimately, I find that the Isserlis has the benefit of richer sound.)

As graceful in her own willowy way as Christopher Warren-Green on the podium, Chang often reminded me of Seiji Ozawa and his zest for color and percussion. Applied to Ravel’s eight-part Valses nobles et sentimentales, the opening suite of the concert occasionally sounded too raucous and contemporary, as if warring with the sentimental waltzes and its own pastoral charm. The French horns and the strings emitted a magical glow in one of the middle movements, and the woodwinds faded gracefully in the quiescent conclusion, leaving plucked strings in their wake.

But I really loved the zest that Chang brought to the Sibelius – and the bravura that came from Charlotte Symphony’s principals. Eugene Kavadlo opened this Andante with an extended clarinet solo, occasionally backed by a soft rumble of the timpani. What really triggered the full orchestral outburst, among the most memorable for me in symphonic music, was the churning of the second violins. Each time the music peaked, the robust brass section – three trumpets, three trombones, and the tuba – were there to crown it.

The violins were very sweet – or skittish – carrying us along toward the huge brassy reprise. In the quieter moments, harpist Andrea Mumm conspired first with Ulaky and later with Kavadlo, but as the storms gathered, timpanist Leonardo Soto became increasingly active. Another andante followed, where Chang and the violins seemed spontaneously swept along. When she brought her characteristic snap to the orchestral texture, it was after the strings had ratcheted up the urgency and let out a keening lament. At the point when we spun toward warlike fury, those jagged edges spiked the insanity. A weepy aftermath ensued from the violins with a solemn overlay from the brass.

Sibelius’s idea of Scherzo was also much to Chang’s liking, its quick marching sections very amenable to the punch she applied to them. Lighter moments came courtesy of the flighty flutes and the calm French horns. Soto was able to play the insistent marching theme a few times on timpani, and he didn’t shrink at all from his moments of melody.

Chang was no more immune to the rhapsodic allure of Sibelius’s Finale than Jan himself must have been when he heard the symphonic works of Tchaikovsky that surely inspired it. (Scratch that, Sibelius hated it when everyone compared his symphonies to Tchaikovsky’s!) There’s plenty of turbulence counterbalancing the opening schmaltz, plenty of opportunities for Chang’s slashing proclivities to come to the fore. But unlike the Ravel, the shuttling between the bellicose and the sentimental episodes was deftly handled.

Mumm was not only active in the sugary sections. There were times when she actually coaxed a tinny sound from her harp. The spotlight fell on her at the end of the piece, as the last thunder from Soto and the brass gave way to a brief hush. My favorite recording of the symphony remains the first I acquired, by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic. They thoughtfully give a special credit to the clarinetist, so it was no surprise that Chang asked Kavadlo to stand for the first bow. The audience needed no such prompting.

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