ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC
Patrons of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra got their money’s worth Saturday night in the Amphitheater. Between two large works for full orchestra on the program, they heard almost every regular member of the ensemble, and then some.
Happily, everything was worth hearing. Indeed, with music director Rossen Milanov on the podium, and a stellar guest soloist, both the program and the performances were illuminating, and the evening proved distinctly, even uncommonly satisfying.
Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony No. 9 is a welcome presence under any circumstance and certainly was so Saturday. But the main attraction on this occasion was the Organ Symphony No. 2 by Alexandre Guilmant, a French composer and organist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unlike comparable works by his more famous peers and predecessors, Guilmant’s symphony from 1911 utilizes the organ less as a soloist than as an integral member of a large orchestra. The instrument features prominently, to be sure, but also plays supporting and textural roles.
Milanov was the artist in charge, but the star of this half was organist Joshua Stafford. Seated stage left at the Massey Memorial Organ console, he delivered an assured, colorful performance that was poetic and stirring in equal measure.
The score, to be fair, isn’t a work of staggering genius. It does, however, have much to recommend it, including numerous and brilliant passages of counterpoint, and Stafford and the CSO made the most of every opportunity.
The opening movement, in their hands, was bold and sumptuous, an entrance to remember. The second and fourth, by contrast, saw Stafford in a more reflective, lyrical light, playing alone or corresponding intimately with various woodwinds in fine form.
Still, the highlight, for this listener, was the finale, marked “Intermede et allegro con brio.” A spicy, fast-paced showpiece for orchestra and organ alike, it was the symphonic equivalent of the thrilling church postlude one simply can’t walk out on.
Staggering genius, of course, is everywhere present in Dvořák’s “New World.” A marvel of musical construction and cultural appropriation, it ranks among the greatest works of its kind in existence.
The performance Saturday, like the Guilmant symphony, had much to recommend it. The third movement may have been too consistently slow for the music’s varied character, but the rest of the account by Milanov and the CSO was Dvořák of the most thoughtful, potent sort.
Time and again, Milanov resisted flashy tempos, opting instead for substance. The result, largely, was a considered, spacious reading that packed enormous drama but also allowed orchestra and listeners alike to savor every harmony and phrase.
This paid enormous dividends, not only in the famous slow movement, but also in the first and last movements. Here, refreshingly, there was ample time to relish the gleam of the strings, the pristine articulation of the woodwinds, and the consonant vigor of the brass, all the way through the last measure.
And oh, what a slow movement. Voicing one of the most beloved melodies in all of classical music, the CSO’s Anna Mattix on English horn was a model of resonant, expressive playing, and the support she received from Milanov and the CSO was as tender and radiant as can be. Talk about the price of admission. This alone was worth it.
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.