Dallas — It was a good night at the symphony on Thursday. The Dallas Symphony played a fascinating program, covering a period of more than 300 years. It also presented an updated version of The Three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Britten.
The program opened with the first of Bach’s six Brandenburg concerti. Next came an amazing performance of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. The program closed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan conducted.
The Britten was simply magnificent. Britten wrote this piece for his life partner Peter Pears. Thus, it presents the same problem as all of the other music designed for Pears (which includes 10 major operas). Pears had a unique voice, both lyric and heroic at the same time. It lacked color but had great flexibility. It was lyric but able to sing heavier roles. A wide range of tenors now sings this music. The role of Peter Grimes is a good example. At the Metropolitan Opera it has been sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson, a tenor who mostly sings Baroque music and Mozart; and Jon Vickers, a heldentenor who sings Wagner and the heavier Verdi roles (such as Otello).
Young lyric tenor Nicholas Phan took on the fearsome task of singing the Serenade. He is something of a Britten specialist, having released two CDs of the composer’s songs, so the composer’s musical style is ingrained. His voice is lighter than Pears’ instrument, but he was able to muster some clarion sounds when needed.
Phan sang much of the song cycle in a floating and very soft mezzo voice. Pears was also famous for this type of singing, but Phan overused it and it lost its impact in those places where it was meant to be dramatic. His diction was excellent for the most part. The words were printed in the program but it was too dark to see them, even if the lights were brighter. They were printed in small type and placed in a gray box. How thoughtless!
But all is forgiven because David Cooper turned in a perfect performance of the treacherous horn part. He was better than excellent. Cooper is so natural when he is playing, as if he is in living room showing some horn licks to friends. Looking younger than his actual age adds to the visual and aural dichotomy.
In all my years of hearing this piece live and recorded by famous players, and even singing it myself back in my singing days, I have never heard better horn playing.
Nicholas McGegan is an anomaly. He has a bizarre conducting style that resembles dance more than recognizable patterns with clear beats. He waves his hands around and bounces up and down. He was somewhat better this time than at his last appearance here, but the problem still exists. This means that the performance is replete with ragged moments. At one scary point, co-concertmaster Nathan Olson and associate concertmaster Gary Levinson had to intervene and pull the session back together before things really ran off the rails. On the other hand, his obvious joy in the moment is contagious.
In the Bach, McGegan’s tempi were rushed in the fast parts. In fact, there were places that were nearly unplayable at the clip he set, although the DSO players did their best.
The players also gave a clean reading of Beethoven’s symphony. McGegan took a relatively romantic approach; a surprise coming from a specialist in historically correct performance practices. This was most noticeable in the slow movement, with lots of swells and rubato. Repeats were just that, with nothing new to say—but few conductors take that opportunity. The last movement was rushed just enough to rob the music of it grandeur. The orchestra played with finesse and great intonation.
It really didn’t matter how anything else on the program went, although it was all very good. The memory of the Britten Serenade, and especially Cooper’s astounding performance, was the only aspect discussed on the way home.