ASO’s Joseph McFadden shines in Vaňhal concerto

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
September 23 & 25, 2021
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA

Shiyeon Sung, conductor; Joseph McFadden, double bass.
HAYDN: Symphony No. 102
VAŇHAL: Double Bass Concerto
BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2

Mark Gresham | 27 SEP 2021

On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Haydn, and Brahms led by South Korean female conductor Shiyeon Sung (성시연, alt. Romanizations: Shi-Yeon Sung, Seong Si-yeon, Sŏng Siyŏn). ASO principal bass Joseph McFadden was the featured soloist.

In 2006, Sung became the first woman to win first prize in the Sir Georg Solti International Conductors’ Competition. In 2007, she became the first female assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a post she held through 2010, then was the associate conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic from 2009 to 2013. She was chief conductor of the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra from 2014 until the end of 2017, during which time the orchestra achieved some international success.

These concerts mark Sung’s debut appearance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Guest conductor Shiyeon Sund (credit: Rand Lines)

Guest conductor Shiyeon Sung (credit: Rand Lines)

Sung and the ASO opened Thursday night’s program with the Symphony No. 102 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). It is the tenth of Haydn’s dozen London symphonies and is sometimes regarded his best in terms of composer’s craft, even though it is performed less frequently than some of his others.

The first movement opens with a dignified, expressive Largo introduction to a brilliant Vivace in a highly evolved sonata form. The subtle Adagio (which Haydn also used in his Piano Trio No. 40 in F♯ minor, Hob. XV:26) features slow, sustained melodies over a gently flowing accompaniment. The Menuetto is a foot-stomping country dance that foreshadows Beethoven, with a sweeter Trio reminiscent of Mozart. The Finale (Presto) teases the listener with unexpected twists and turns.

The performance under Sung’s baton grew more convincing as it went along. It hit its stride with the vigorous third movement, with good vitality from there through the end of the fleet Finale.

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A contemporary of Haydn was the Czech composer Johann Baptist Vaňhal (Czech: Jan Křtitel Vaňhal; alt. German: Wanhal; also: Wanhall and Van Hall), who was seven years younger (1739 – 1813). Born in Nechanice, Bohemia, Vaňhal was an accomplished organist who also played violin and cello. By the age of 21, Vaňhal had made his way to Vienna as part of the personal entourage of his patroness, the Countess Schaffgotsch, where he quickly established himself among musical circles. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all knew and respected his music.

In Thursday’s concert, ASO principal bass Joseph McFadden made his solo subscription debut with Vaňhal’s Double Bass Concerto. McFadden joined the ASO’s bass section in September 2011 and won the principal bass position in 2017.

McFadden gave the challenging work a brilliant, compelling performance, his solo part never overshadowed by the fully supportive small orchestra. With a substantial portion played in the instrument’s upper range, the solo part was an excellent showpiece for McFadden’s virtuosic skills. The performance itself was bright and cheerful, a kind of musical optimism we can use more of these days. It was the pinnacle of the concert.

Joseph McFadden

Joseph McFadden (credit: Rand Lines)

Vaňhal’s sole contribution to the genre is considered one of the great double bass concertos of the classical Viennese repertoire and is popular among contemporary bassists. He originally wrote the concerto in Eb major. In those days, a bass player, using Viennese tuning (A-D-F#-A), would tune up a half step (B♭-E♭-G-B♭) and read the solo part in D major.

Today, bassists typically choose to play the concerto from either a part written in C major or D major, with the orchestra in D major transposed down from the original key of E♭. Each version has slightly different open strings and harmonics available to the player, and both are equally difficult. McFadden plays it in C major using solo tuning that is a whole step higher than standard (F♯-B-E-A instead of E-A-D-G). While the orchestra plays in D major, he plays in C major as a transposing instrument. For the audience, of course, it all comes out sounding in D major.

McFadden's bow grip

Detail: McFadden’s bow grip (credit: Rand LInes)

Another factor of interest is that, unlike the majority of players in the ASO’s bass section, McFadden plays with a “German” (or “Butler”) bow.

In contrast to that of the other string instruments, the double bass bow comes in two distinct forms. The “French” bow is similar to those used with other orchestral string instruments and is held in an “overhand” manner. In contrast, the “German” bow is typically broader and shorter and is held in an “underhand” or “handshake” position. The German bow has a taller “frog” (essentially the “handle” of the bow) than does the French bow, making the particular grip possible.

These two bows provide different ways of moving the arm and distributing force and weight on the strings. Advocates of the German bow claim it allows the player to apply more arm weight on the strings, making it easier to use for heavy strokes that require more power. Advocates of the French bow claim greater manipulability. However, the differences are matters of training and preference for proficient players, and both are found today among double bass players in major orchestras.

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The ASO’s most recent performance of Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 on A major, Op. 16, was just this past Spring, in a virtual concert aired on April 29, with Robert Spano conducting.

Brahms wrote five movements for this half-hour Serenade. The opening “Allegro moderato” and ensuing “Scherzo (Vivace)” are full of Brahmsian rhythmic games, the latter even more playful. The centerpiece is the lovely “Adagio non troppo” of which Clara Schumann was enamored. The “Quasi Minuet” fourth movement with its lilting dance rhythms is charming and Haydnesque in character. For the “Allegro” finale, Brahms chose to write a straightforward, cheerful Rondo.

The unusual element to the orchestration is that it includes no violins. The half-hour work features a string section of violas, cellos, and basses with a wind section comprised of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, plus a piccolo that plays only in the final movement.

This performance of the Serenade No. 2 served as a very pleasant conclusion to the concert.​

Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.