Dallas — The lush neo-romanticism of American composer Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto has made it one of the most frequently performed pieces in the violin repertoire. It takes a violinist of prodigious technical and musical facility to do the piece justice, however. On Thursday evening, Dallas Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Alexander Kerr did it justice indeed. The orchestra, under the unusually long baton of conductor Lawrence Foster, did not quite measure up, however.
Kerr captured both the lush lyricism of the first and second movements and the explosive (and dauntingly difficult) pyrotechnics of the final movement. The first movement of this concerto is all about melodic line, and Kerr managed to create an appropriate and even transfixing mood. Kerr is consistently an intelligent and thoughtful player, and this performance was no exception. His interpretation was distinctive yet appropriate, the ideal balance to strike when performing a piece as familiar as this one. In the second movement, the opening solo by oboist Erin Hannigan was utterly gorgeous, with a tone of rich fullness—just the way an oboe should sound. The first violins were nearly flawless in a particularly tricky passage they have in the third movement, in which they have as many notes as the soloist does—but they all have to play together. And they did.
Still, on the whole the orchestra disappointed. Balance was a problem throughout—the piano and brass were often too loud, overshadowing Kerr when they should have been supporting him. Ensemble was sometimes problematic—Foster didn’t always adjust to match Kerr. Perhaps the orchestra and Foster were simply unaccustomed to each other.
Preceding the Barber on the first half of the program was Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody in D Major. It is a strange mishmash of melodies stuck together into a not-particularly-coherent whole. There are much better pieces, a lot of much better pieces, with which to begin a program. Still, the orchestra played well, and Principal Viola Ellen Rose had a fun solo turn, sitting at the back of the stage among the violins. She has a magnificent viola sound. But that alone wasn’t worth programming this Transylvanian Frankenstein of a piece.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams,” which comprised the second half of this weekend’s program, is not performed nearly as often as his fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies. There’s good reason for that—while each of the last three symphonies has strong melodic ideas and skillful orchestration, in this work, Tchaikovsky is clearly still learning how to adapt his gifts to symphonic form.
Still, the Dallas Symphony was technically very fine in this performance. The viola section is highlighted multiple times during the piece, and the DSO’s violists were breathtaking, as were Erin Hannigan, principal oboe, and Demarre McGill, principal flute. McGill in particular has the ability to make just a couple of notes, a solo that would be a throwaway for some flutists, sound truly special, allowing those notes to float out into the concert hall like spun gold.