Dallas — The Dallas Symphony brought conductor Hans Graf to the podium for the series of concerts this weekend. As far as baton technique goes, Graf is the best and most polished conductor in my experience. He was joined by the equally gifted pianist Stephen Hough, another musician with impeccable technique and right ideas.
Most of us can imagine hundreds of dream programs for this ideal pairing. Unfortunately, none of these imaginary concerts appeared. Instead, we got the ho-hum and the nevermind.
Franz Liszt’s first piano concerto is a standard that we have heard recently. The DSO played it in February of 2011 with another top-flight pianist, Jean Yves Thibaudet. My review is here. The Fort Worth Symphony, led by guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech, delivered a well-played but not so well conceived performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Technicolor orchestra spectacular, Scheherazade, last season. The review is here.
We also heard an acceptable performance by the DSO of the same piece in 2011 under guest conductor Carlo Rizzi. The interest in that concert was hearing the solo violin part played by our newly appointed co-concertmaster, Nathan Olson. Here is the review of that concert.
Stravinsky’s symphonic excerpts from his opera The Nightingale opened the program. This piece is not played often, and hearing it in what would have to be the best of all possible performance conditions, we can see why. The suite was performed by the DSO with virtuosity and Graf conducts with precision, but that was not enough to make it work. The opera itself is a delight and received a magical performance in Santa Fe this summer, but without the stage business the music loses the underlying plan and becomes a collection of passages. Thus, it has no structure of its own and goes nowhere discernable. Its 20-plus minutes felt longer.
On the positive side, this piece is like a concerto for conductor. Its constantly changing meter and time signatures presents a gigantic challenge. Not for Graf, at least not as far as what you could see. Underneath his confident manner and precisely moving baton, you can bet that he is counting like mad, but it doesn’t show. On Friday, he demonstrated such a mastery of the motions that he was able to move past the complexities to make some music.
We were iniquitous to despair over the banality of the other two pieces on the program. Great artists can make the familiar fresh and this is what happened on Friday evening.
Hough began the Liszt concerto by creating a surprisingly huge sound—without banging or overplaying the instrument. This is not as easy as it sounds and many fine pianists are not able to accomplish the effect. Thus, the opening passage announced that this was not going to be just another performance of a warhorse and, before the opening cadenza ended, everyone sat up and focused. Quite an accomplishment. It only got better as it continued.
Sitting upright, and with little body movement, Hough demonstrated how to give a highly romanticized performance without ever crossing the line into sentimentality. All of the technical passages, which are what this concerto is about, were dispatched with some notably nimble fingers, but it was his musicianship that was the take away. His performance illuminated the music in such a way that you felt like you were hearing it anew. Even those who are not fans of Liszt, such as this writer, were forced to reconsider the concerto and admit that it is a masterpiece.
If the Stravinsky is a concerto for the conductor, Scheherazade is like a concerto for the orchestra. Most of the principal players have significant solos, especially for the concertmaster. After all, it started out as a projected violin concerto. As mentioned above, we heard Olsen play this a while ago and, it must be admitted that some may have wished that another player were playing them for a change.
We have another concertmaster, Alex Kerr, and a senior associate concertmaster, Gary Levinson. However, the desire to hear these solos rethought was granted by Olson himself. Not that he was deficient two years ago, but on Friday he played with real mastery and musical maturity, putting his own stamp on the music. It was a remarkable performance.
Perhaps the cool and controlled Graf was not suited as well to a big romantic piece like Scheherazade, in which you might want a conductor who paid less attention to structure and conducted the waves of music instead. While a Bernstien-esque performance might impress with its sweep, Graf’s meticulous performance revealed a different side of the piece. Although no conductor can deal with the repetitious nature of Scheherazade, Graf washed the windows and let Rimski-Korsakov’s mastery of compositional technique shine.
The takeaway here was realizing what a fine piece this really is when you hear its inner structure, rather than just its colorful orchestral effects.