François López-Ferrer, Zuill Bailey and the Pasadena Symphony excel in Rimsky-Korsakov, Elgar and Chin

United StatesUnited States Chin, Elgar, Rimsky-Korsakov: Zuill Bailey (cello), Pasadena Symphony Orchestra / François López-Ferrer (conductor). Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, 11.2.2023. (LV)

Zuill Bailey © Pasadena Symphony

Unsuk Chin – ‘subito con forza’
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor

It was a concert of heroes at Ambassador Auditorium on Saturday night. Zuill Bailey brought a thrilling virtuosity to Elgar’s Cello Concerto that almost overcame its deep sadness. Associate Concertmaster Amy Hershberger stepped into the concertmaster’s seat at the last minute and made a radiantly innocent Scheherazade. Principal bassoonist Rose Corrigan’s woody sound and eloquence recalled the days when Michael O’Donovan held the seat. And François López-Ferrer, making his debut with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, led a grandly romantic performance of the Rimsky-Korsakov that recaptured some of the glory from the time of Jorge Mester.

The concert started with Unsuk Chin’s ingeniously devised ‘subito con forza’ which the Pasadena Symphony and López-Ferrer put together with the brilliant sense of timing and intricate precision needed to make the references to Beethoven explode like landmines through the five-minute soundscape. Written for the 2020 Beethoven anniversary year, it was a perfect curtain raiser for our time. The young Spanish-American conductor’s energy on the podium and the fast, audacious playing made knowing Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture from the ‘Emperor’ Concerto secondary to the experience of having your ears tuned up for the music to come.

In the Elgar Cello Concerto that followed, Bailey brought a larger-than-life, Errol Flynn charm and presence that infused everything he did and even, at times, overwhelmed his huge technique. Bailey’s Elgar had a knight errant’s noble purpose and attitude, and he launched the opening chords with such captivating sweep and thrust that the audience was his from that moment on. With the help of López-Ferrer and the orchestra, Bailey and his cello projected forcefully into the hall with magnificent purpose, poise and an overall sense of what the Concerto is all about.

After the explosive ending of the Elgar which had the full house on their feet, Bailey played two encores, the first of which was the Theme from Schindler’s List. For the second, he chose the first movement of Bach’s first Cello Suite, during which he paused at the brink of the iconic drone sections with a knowing grin before surging ahead triumphantly to the end.

With López-Ferrer in the driver’s seat, the Symphony did some surging of its own throughout Scheherazade. It reminds one of how simultaneously intimate and Technicolor symphonic music can be at the Ambassador, where I still remember Karajan’s chamber music-like performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. Associate Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and previously a Dudamel Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, López-Ferrer paid serious attention to the orchestra and let the music do the talking. Hershberger made an eloquent case for a kinder, gentler and even more seductive heroine and, together with cellist Michael Collins and the wonderful principals in the woodwinds and brass, lavished love and wide swaths of color on the solos.

Laurence Vittes

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