Dallas — The Dallas Chamber Symphony remains a conundrum. It is an excellent orchestra with some of the best players in town. With an exciting soloist, they can turn in an thrilling performance. Their innovative program of commissioning new scores for classic silent films is worthy of national notice. But Music Director Richard McKay is an uninspiring conductor in most other situations. Such was the case on Tuesday when the orchestra opened its third season at Dallas City Performance Hall.
Locally based pianist Alex McDonald is a remarkable talent. He first came to wider notice with his outstanding performance in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano competition. While no one quibbles with whom eventually won, many thought that McDonald’s combination of sparkling technique and insightful musicianship should have advanced him to the next round. Those attributes were on prominent display on Tuesday as he set off fireworks with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Shostakovich started out to write a trumpet concerto and then added a piano part, which eventually took over the whole piece. The trumpet is still there, but in a secondary position to the piano. However, there was nothing secondary about trumpeter Oscar Garcia Montoya’s performance in the piece. It was unfortunate that he was placed in the back of the orchestra and directly behind the raised piano lid. This meant that he was invisible to the audience for the entire performance. But his clear and burnished sound was front and center.
In addition to the Spartan use of the solo trumpet, this concerto is an odd work in other ways. It is full of mischievous quotes from everyone from Beethoven to the composer’s own works. It is also full of twists and turns and, as a result, it can sound disjointed. Not so in McDonald’s performance. From the start, he had a view of the entire piece in his mind and every note he played was a step along his journey to the ending.
Much of the piano part is percussive and McDonald provided a great variety of sounds within this parameter. Some passages were brittle and others pure steel. There were times that he hit the keys in such a manner as to create the twang of piano strings while allowing the full resonance of the instrument to ring in other, equally loud, passages. In the slow lyrical moments in the second movement, it was easy to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. He connected up the notes with a finger legato that let the instrument sing.
McKay provided a supportive accompaniment. This is a difficult work to conduct, with all its abrupt changes, and he was in close contact with McDonald the whole way. Of course, the conductor has the worst seat in the house as far as acoustics go and the orchestra frequently covered the piano. In most cases, it is better for the conductor to err on the quiet side when paying a concerto, but this work has such a high energy level that it is very difficult to judge levels.
Overall, it was a fine performance of a rarely performed concerto. It was a treat to hear it and it was a credit to all concerned.
There were two other works on the program. Peter Warlock’s delightful Capriol Suite for Strings is a staple of high school and college orchestral repertoire and it was good to hear it played by the excellent strings of the DCS.
Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings was another matter. McKay’s somnambulistic conducting shaved off the peaks and flattened the valleys of Dvořák’s highly colored score. Tempi were slow and the entire performance lacked energy.
On the other hand, the audience seemed to enjoy it and that is really all that matters. They gave the orchestra and McKay a rousing ovation.
» Read our interview with pianist Alex McDonald