Irving — Allow me to introduce you to a group that has been around for awhile, but whom you may not have had the pleasure of hearing: the Las Colinas Symphony—or the Garland Symphony or Symphony Arlington, depending on the date its performing. Its one group operating under three names and led by Robert Carter Austin, a conductor whose wide-ranging experience and education has made him a versatile, confident and articulate maestro for whichever group you are fortunate enough to witness him leading.
Saturday's program at the Irving Arts Center by the Las Colinas Symphony—the same program offered in Arlington on Thursday and in Garland on Friday—opened with Daniel F.E. Auber's The Crown Diamonds Overture, a work presumably dug up to underline the season's organizing theme, "Symphonic Treasures." We should thank them for unearthing it. It's nice when a relatively obscure work exceeds expectations. And it speaks well of everyone involved in its programming and performance that the audience comes away from it saying, "I'd like to hear that again."
Following the Auber, the group brought out the evening's soloist, pianist Jan Jiracek, a finalist in the 1997 Van Cliburn competition. His performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto (in C minor, Op. 37) showed the technique, wit and good taste that have kept his name in circulation here and further afield. Jiracek seemed passionately involved in the entire work, even in sections in which he was not playing. He wasn't just waiting for his next entrance. It was exhilarating to watch. And his prompt offering of Schubert's Impromptu in A-flat, Op. 90/IV, as an encore after less than 60 seconds of ovation, was a gracious response to an audience that undoubtedly would have called him back to the stage three or four times to get it, but was even more grateful that they didn't have to.
Austin and the orchestra likewise performed Beethoven's score with polish and restraint, and only once did that restraint not serve the work well: in the rondo, the oboe and bassoon's restatement of the rondo theme was a little too shy after the piano's opening. Instead of matching the rest of the ensemble—including the pianist's figuration, the effect of which may have been underestimated—the theme should obtrude a little at that point; the audience shouldn't have to strain to hear it.
No one had to strain to make out anything in the closing work, the Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor. After some preliminary comments by Austin and a slow introduction by Schumann, things took off. The first movement is full of stops and starts, but thanks to the skill of Austin and the group, the stops took on the character of drawing back in order to leap ahead, rather than of stalling at the peak of a climb. In the second movement, though, the opening theme's pace seemed unnecessarily deliberate, which is not the same as being too slow. Slight pitch disagreements during the oboe-cello duet at the beginning were thus emphasized, although by the time the theme was reprised, those problems had largely been solved.
In the Symphony's third movement, there's a built-in problem that ensembles and their directors must decide how to handle. After the scherzo's opening section—which this orchestra swung through as if made for it—there comes a gorgeous, rhythmically hazy section (the Trio, if you're keeping score), wherein Schumann gives the upper woodwinds one thing and the violins another. Both are intended, and together they clash a bit. Some groups (in recordings, mostly) try to minimize the clash, but the Las Colinas Symphony decided to punch it. And that's fine—again, it's built-in.
By the last movement's halfway mark, the group had started to tire. It didn't surprise, then, given the workout the first three movements provided, that the normally robust horn section got perhaps a little too robust, or that the lower strings lacked clarity at the closing presto. The alto trombone never faltered, however; perhaps that part isn't as difficult as other players have made it sound, though I doubt that. Whatever the case, it made me wish alto trombones showed up more often.
Come to think of it, there were many things about Austin and the Las Colinas Symphony's performance that make me think I'm going to be showing up more often, whether they bring an alto trombone or not.