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CSO bassist Alexander Hanna, in solo light, finds singing voice in his grand instrument

Submitted by on Dec 21, 2015 – 6:23 am

12/17/15 8:35:44 PM -- Chicago Symphony Orchestra 125th Year. Chicago Symphony Orchestra James Conlon Conductor Vanhal Double Bass Concerto in D Major Featuring Principal Bass Alexander Hanna © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra with principal bass soloist Alexander Hanna, James Conlon conducting.
By Daniel Hautzinger

Often forgotten but integral, the double bass is the foundation of the orchestra. Without its supportive heft, the majestic edifice of the orchestra would crumble, and the driving harmonic motion it provides would be lost. So it was satisfying and just to see this taken-for-granted but vital instrument move to the front of Orchestra Hall’s stage on Dec. 19 in the hands of Alexander Hanna, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal bass.

Alex Hanna, 29, joined the CSO in 2012. (Todd Rosenberg)Appointed to The CSO’s David and Mary Winton Green Chair in 2012 by music director Riccardo Muti after a four-year stint as principal of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Hanna is still astonishingly young, given his success. His youth was subtly telegraphed by his appearance at Orchestra Hall: a hint of a styled spike at the front of his coif, vest, no coat, wide grin.

Aside from a few well-known solos (for example the opening Frère Jacques theme of the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, which Hanna sensitively performed this summer at Ravinia under the baton of James Conlon), the bass rarely gains the spotlight. But there are several virtuosos who have brought it to greater public attention, like Hanna’s former teacher Edgar Meyer. There are also a few concertos with which to show off, like Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D major, which Hanna performed Dec. 19, with Conlon conducting.

A Bohemian contemporary of Mozart active in Vienna, Vanhal does not showcase the idiosyncrasies of the bass in his concerto; rather, he gives the instrument something it rarely gets: the melody.

Hanna retuned the bass strings in accordance with the composer's intent.Instead of indulging in finger-burning passage-work, the soloist mostly spins simple, shapely themes in the instrument’s upper range, no small feat on the bass. With its large body and wide distances between notes, the instrument does not lend itself to graceful melodies. Yet Hanna played them attractively, as smoothly as if he were playing a cello.

Each movement has its own cadenza, which Hanna embellished with his own material, matching the style so well that his additions were impossible to distinguish from the written cadenza. The second-movement cadenza, the heart of the piece, was especially striking, with its consolatory mood and double stops. Hanna’s tone was taut and lyrical throughout, enriched by the frequent ringing of open strings allowed by Vanhal’s unusual “Viennese” tuning. Playing in such a tuning adds resonance but also requires the bassist to adjust fingerings and hand positions, a mental stumbling block that didn’t faze Hanna.

James Conlon conducted two works by Dvořák with the Chicago Symphony. (Todd Rosenberg)The bass is limited by its relatively quiet volume, but Conlon and a reduced CSO were careful to support rather than overpower. As a result, the concerto hovered around the lower section of the orchestra’s vast dynamic range; but the second half of the program, featuring two colorful Dvořák tone poems, provided plenty of grand outbursts.

The “Wild Dove” and “The Golden Spinning Wheel” are both based on ballads by the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. Dvořák brilliantly illustrates the stories, both gruesome, Brothers Grimm-like tales. But his music is more Disney than dark, with bucolic forest scenes, rustic folk songs, regal fanfares, luscious romances and a remarkable, hymnal chorale at the end of “The Wild Dove.”

More than a century ago, the CSO gave the U.S. premieres of both Dvořák pieces. Amazingly, though both the Vanhal and the Overture to Mozart’s very early opera “Lucio Silla,” which opened the program, predate the Dvořák by another century, this weekend marked their first CSO performances. That fact is simply further evidence of the neglect of the double bass. Perhaps Hanna can continue to bring it to the fore; he still has a long career ahead of him.

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