For a conductor considering the leadership of a major symphony orchestra, the 2019-20 concert season probably was not the best place to start. Orchestras already were facing labor issues, bankruptcy, fundraising woes, aging audiences, no audiences. Things couldn’t be worse. Or could they? Hello, Covid-19. Yet in spite of a virus that made live musical performance all but impossible, some conductors have not only risen to the challenge, they have embraced it like a surfer facing the Big Kahuna. Some sink, but others rise undaunted to the surface. And to judge by this recent streamed concert from Paris, Case Scaglione is ready for the next wave.

Case Scaglione
© Philharmonie de Paris

Scaglione, a 37-year-old American, was appointed chief conductor of the Orchestre National d’Île-de France, a position he held only a few months before the global pandemic began its reign of death and destruction. Last week’s concert showed him in fine form conducting a program of Rachmaninov and Sibelius at the Philharmonie de Paris. The event bore the subtitle “The fire under the ice”, but the order of these gauges of temperature was actually reversed as I heard and experienced the concert.

Beginning with “the fire” in the second half of the program, sparks flew as Scaglione directed an electrifying performance of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, one of the most familiar and popular classical works of the 20th century. Conducting with a baton, but without a score, Scaglione left no doubt in anyone’s mind who was in charge of this event, performed without an audience and with masks and social distancing in place.

Orchestre national d'Île-de-France
© Philharmonie de Paris

Sibelius’ large-scale works can indeed be as icy and cold as the Finnish winter landscape, but Scaglione infused those frigid waves of triplets that rush through the middle movements into a musical conflagration that caught fire and spread to the final chapter. Some call the rhapsodic conclusion of this work “grandiose” or self-indulgent, but I call it beautiful. The ONDIF may not be the most celebrated in Europe, but with Scaglione’s unwavering energy and ability to communicate with his entire body, the musicians rose to the challenge and delivered a first-rate performance.

Yeol Eun Sum
© Philharmonie de Paris

The program opened with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto featuring the young South Korean pianist, Yeol Eum Son. There were some lovely moments, including the almost voluptuous conclusion with its unforgettable melodies and that penultimate heart-stopping pause before the final statement of the theme. Yeol Eum Son displayed a wonderful technique and earnest responsiveness to the orchestra, but the musicians and soloist did not always mesh, especially at the beginning, and there were moments I wondered whether there was a problem with the piano which sometimes had a tinny upper register. The second movement seemed even slower than it should be, though the duet and later obbligato between clarinet and piano was enchanting. Except for the rousing conclusion, this Rachmaninov was more shimmering ice than roaring fire.

Overall, however, it was wonderful to see and hear such a promising young pianist and to experience a full-size symphonic ensemble under the fresh new leadership of Scaglione. Imagine what he’ll do when the concert world returns to some semblance of normalcy!

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonie de Paris video stream