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Review: The DeKalb Symphony opens season with guest cellist Roee Harrán

by Atlanta Business Journal

The DeKalb Symphony Orchestra took the stage Tuesday evening for the opening of their 2022-23 season, their first performance with recently minted music director Paul Bhasin officially ensconced in his new role and featuring Atlanta cellist Roee Harrán as the guest soloist.

Following a whirlwind selection process, which included each of the four shortlisted candidates performing with the symphony as a part of its “Masterworks” series last spring, Bhasin takes the reins and will set the course for the orchestra’s foreseeable future. With that in mind, the season’s opening night seemed a revealing litmus test for what to expect from Bhasin going forward.

Bhasin’s stage presence and conducting style is conservative and efficient without being devoid of passion where it counts. That balanced nature — which came across when he discussed his new job last week with ArtsATL — seemed appropriate for an orchestra in a process of transition.

The evening opened with Joaquín Turina’s La Procesión del Rocío, Op.9. Originally premiered in Madrid in 1913 to celebrate the country’s annual festival to honor the Virgin Mary, the piece functions in two halves. The first is jaunty and whimsical, while the second migrates into more solemn, reflective territory. The work’s opening salvo is bright and playful — the kind of jovial chaos that underscores classic Disney cartoons.

It’s the sort of uptempo work that the DeKalb Symphony handles well — cheerful and enthusiastic while still staying inside a middle-of-the-road comfort zone. The lack of cohesion that marked some concerts last season seemed gone and, under Bhasin, the orchestra has already developed considerable chemistry.

Atlanta cellist Roee Harrán was the featured soloist for the opening concert of the season. (Photo by Dan Smigrod)

The more technically demanding opening movement of La Procesión del Rocío hinges on a series of dramatic accents by the woodwinds and the section played a convincing game of hot potato with their stringed counterparts, capturing the piece’s intricacy even at its most dynamic points.

The featured soloist for the evening was Israeli-born cellist Roee Harrán. He performed Camille Saint-Saëns’ Concerto for Violoncello, No. 11 in A minor, Op.33. The work is notorious for its structure-bending approach, which places the introduction of the cello on the first bar — a highly unusual compositional choice for solo cello works of the time and a bellwether for even more unusual developments to come later in the piece.

The result is a composition which demands that the cellist display a high range of technical acumen, while being able to shift in an instant to graceful melodic passages. Harrán was more than up for the challenge, turning in a performance that was full of polite fury while never becoming so unhinged that it rendered the sudden changes into mellower passages jarring.

Less impressive was the first half closer “Capriccio Espagnol, op.34” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Filled with all the pomp and circumstance for which the Russian classical ethos is known, it is a work that demands to be played with extroverted, bombastic abandon, a feat that is still a struggle for the orchestra. One of the most pervasive shortfalls in this regard came from the percussion section, which seemed tepid and afraid to fully commit to the brash tonality required. That sort of restraint kept the rest of the orchestra on a short leash and ultimately reigned in what should have been a glorious parade of Russian classical pastiche.

The evening’s second half was devoted entirely to Howard Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony No. 2, Op. 30. It is a thoroughly passable work from the early half of the 20th century but, with the exception of its elegant build, largely devoid of the memorable elements that made the evening’s first half so spectacular. The evening’s performance, however, deserves one significant commendation — the work builds to a thunderous close and it was finally, in these closing passages, that the orchestra’s percussion section embraced the breadth and width of their true capacity.

All in all, Bhasin has shown himself to be a gently commanding and thoroughly enjoyable presence on the conductor’s stand and the orchestra seems comfortable with him. It will certainly be engaging to see how the ensemble develops under his command and how he will expand their dynamic range as time goes on.

The DeKalb Symphony Orchestra returns November 8 with special guest Jessica Wu on violin. The evening will include works by Bach, Bizet and Tchaikovsky.

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Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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