Dallas — The Dallas Symphony played this weekend's concerts without Musical Director Jaap van Zweden. No announcement was made but word has been circulating that he is having some trouble with his shoulder. If this is the case, we certainly hope that this is a minor matter and that he will return soon. Fortunately, Paul Phillips, music director of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Symphony Orchestra, has an ongoing relationship with the DSO and was able to step in. While he is not the charismatic presence than the fiery van Zweden brings to the podium, he is a solid conductor with an expressive technique and well-thought-out interpretations. The already scheduled guest conductor Jakub Hrůŝa will conduct next week in a program including 19-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki playing Chopin's first concerto.
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is one of the standards of the repertoire and a main stay every four years at the Cliburn competition. The composer’s third concerto has supplanted it in popularity recently, mainly because it is a more difficult and substantial piece. However, you can count on either concerto to pack the hall and this was the case on Thursday evening when the DSO gave the second concerto a shy.
The common wisdom is that Rachmaninoff’s second concerto is one of those pieces that can survive, and has survived, almost any bizarre performance. It can even work in the hands of an erstwhile talented student who can just barely make it through the notes. The soloist in this weekend’s series of concerts, Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova, certainly has the chops to play it. The problem here is that, while even the strangest interpretation is never “wrong” in an existential kind of way, her musical decisions were consistently inexplicable.
While Rachmaninoff is, indeed, a late Romantic composer and rubato and nuance are the heart and soul of his style, Fedorova both over-employed and then greatly exaggerated this give and take to the point where the concerto frequently collapsed under its own weight. Ritards were stretched out to the point of nearly stopping, which can be effective once or twice, but not every time a phrase or section ends. She would then launch into a part that shows off nimble fingers at a breakneck pace, only to be stuck in the mire of sentimentality at the next possible moment.
Phillips, or any conductor for that matter, has little control over a soloist like Fedorova during a performance. Not following her into her hyperbolic heavens would only make the performance sound scrappy and the blame would be completely laid at the conductor’s feet. Phillips stayed with her as best he could, watching her more frequently than would normally be necessary with a more trustworthily soloist. The DSO, of course, can instantly adjust to anything. Because of this, the concerto proceeded without incident when the ensemble slipped. The audience, correctly entranced by the sheer beauty and brilliance of Rachmaninoff’s writing, went wild at the end of the performance, no matter how torpid and overheated it turned out to be.
The concerto was framed on either side by eagerly awaited pieces and with happier results.
The program opened with a little heard piece by Dmitri Shostakovich: Five Fragments for Orchestra. Anton Webern, the most astringent and severe disciple of Arnold Schoenberg, produced a complete body of work made up of such miniatures. So, viewed through a Webern lens rather than hold it up against Shostakovich’s other massive works in the genre, these fragments make up an intriguing and diminutive symphony in themselves. All of his distinctive compositional trademarks are present, such as a frequent use of two distinct lines widely spread over a multiple octave range and the hypnotic use of repeated patterns. Frequently, short passages brought many of the composer’s other works to mind. For example, the violin solo, played with rustic passion by Concertmaster Alex Kerr, was the precursor of the cocky and brash violin solo in his ninth symphony. Phillips led a convincing performance.
Copland’s third symphony is a work on a grand scale and a perennial candidate for the title of “Great American Symphony.” The search for the elusive work to hold that designation is as much a fool’s errand as to name the “Great European Symphony”; it is only undertaken by those who think such a thing can even exist in such an egalitarian society. It is understandable in the milieu of 1946, when it was written, with America’s awkward awareness that classical music itself is an immigrant on these shores. Copland’s distinctive wide open sound and use of newly emerging folk musical elements, such as the hoedown in his ballet Rodeo, would put an American stamp on a European art form, such as Grant Wood did in his iconic painting “American Gothic” in 1930. In some ways, Copland succeeds and the incorporation of his well-known and open-interval-laden “Fanfare for the Common Man” certainly helps.
Phillips showed a command of the symphony and did a fine job of pacing it from beginning to end. The opening was scrappy, mostly because his beat lacked a clear ictus. This can be a problem in Copland, a foursquare composer. Almost everything exactly occurs on a beat, even when he is constantly changing it through mixed meter. After a while, the performance pulled together and ensemble greatly improved. Phillips rarely, if ever, over-conducts; he always keeps the frame of his gestures within reason. You could clearly see this in the fanfare itself, when the temptation to put on a conducting show is nearly irresistible. Phillips, on the other hand, conducted it with a dignity that ennobled the music and kept it contained within the symphony structure.
The orchestra did a great job on Thursday. There are lots of solos for the principal players and all acquitted themselves beautifully. There was a lot of detail in the performance, especially the Copland, such as timpanist Brian Jones’ distinctive use of a wide variety of mallets to create different effects, from a general boom to a distinctive pitch. Also, a wood block (couldn’t see who played it) offered the right dynamic level to add sharpness without calling attention to itself. These are little things, but they make a performance distinctive.
If there was a complaint on Thursday, it was the usual one. The piece became too loud too soon, even early in the first movement, leaving no sonic room for the orchestral splendor yet to come—such as the fanfare itself.