Dallas — Thursday evening at the Meyerson Symphony Center, there was some gorgeous solo violin playing. Unfortunately for featured violinist Benjamin Beilman, though, it wasn’t his performance of the Sibelius concerto that receives those accolades. The best violin solo of the evening was concertmaster Alexander Kerr’s 39-bar solo turn in the second movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Using ample vibrato, Kerr delivered a tender, caressing sound that floated over the seats in the Meyerson like a cloud of Brahmsian loveliness.
The opening tympani pulses of the first movement of the Brahms are at their best an ecstatic musical moment, and the DSO and principal timpanist Brian Jones delivered. These opening moments set the stage for a fine performance that, while somehow not as glorious as last week’s Mahler 1, was at worst competent and at best riveting. In addition to Kerr’s violin solo in the second movement, oboist Erin Hannigan produced a rich yet penetrating sound for her featured solo. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard better ensemble in the string pizzicato (plucked) passages in the fourth movement.
I wish I had better things to say about violinist Benjamin Beilman’s performance of the Sibelius Concerto in D minor. Alas, however, it was technically and musically disappointing. In fairness, Beilman substituted for Midori, who is apparently ill. However, he is performing the concerto with other orchestras over the next couple of weekends. Underpreparedness does not seem to be the problem.
I first heard Beilman almost exactly two years ago, performing the Dvořák concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony. I looked up my review from two years ago, and discovered that my concerns then were almost identical to my issues with Thursday’s performance. Two years ago, though, Beilman was just 23, and I could reasonably attribute some of the problems to nerves. Not anymore.
The Sibelius concerto can be a landmine of technical difficulties, but so can any of the major Romantic-era violin concerti. Beilman missed some shifts and dropped some notes, more than should happen at this level. But more distressing was his sound. Perhaps Beilman’s instrument doesn’t project well in a large hall, or he’s afraid it won’t, so he’s trying to play louder than the fiddle can tolerate. In any case, his tone in the Sibelius was rough and forced throughout, especially in the lower registers of his instrument. There are a few moments in the concerto where that rough sound can be appropriate, but Beilman chose that sound throughout all three movements of the piece.
The Sibelius concerto includes passages that are high up on the lowest, or G, string. The reason for playing these passages on this string is to provide a darker timbre. However, trying to play too loudly for the individual instrument in this register produces an ugly, growly sound. It’s more noticeable up close, and diminishes the farther away the listener is. On Thursday, Beilman’s sound was buzzy and unpleasant even from my 15th-row seat. I can’t really understand it. Beilman’s musical pedigree is flawless—he’s studied with some of the best teachers in the U.S. and internationally, the starmakers of the violin world. He does have a lot of potential. But his playing is not yet up to the standards of the DSO.