Dallas — Another vital, but missing, piece of the thriving music scene in the Metroplex fell into place on Tuesday evening when a visiting major symphony took the stage at the Meyerson Symphony Center. For those of us who moved here in the last ten years or so, the appearance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was the first such event. Thanks for this resumption (hopefully) of visits by the world’s great orchestras goes to the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Classical Criterion series. It also filled another missing opportunity to observe the world’s greatest conductors; in this case Zubin Mehta.
On paper, the program was disappointing. There wasn’t much excitement generated by a concert that featured Dvořák’s New World Symphony again. True, it is a magnificent piece no doubt, but it is over-performed to the max. Ravel’s la Valse, which shared the program, falls into a similar category. Even though many of us hoped to hear more, only Journey to the End of the Millennium by Josef Bardanashvili offered a dollop of music by an Israeli composer. However, by the end of the concert, no one was complaining about the selections.
A quote by a distinguished painter concerning abstract art came to mind. “First, paint me a bowl of fruit, then you can do whatever you want.” It is in the execution of the most ordinary things, such as Dvořák’s overplayed symphony, that can reveal the true artist. And so it was with the Israel Philharmonic with the authoritative presence of Mehta on the podium.
He was in command instead of commanding and in control instead of controlling. Conducting without a score for the Ravel and Dvořák, standing with upright bearing, he radiated authority, competence and supreme confidence. He employed the minimal gesture, just enough, to communicate exactly what he wanted, with slightly bigger motions reserved for a few key moments. He took the big overview of the symphony, with the last note in mind when he played the first ones. He led us through the symphony on an uninterrupted pathway, showing us interesting details along the way, but kept us moving along, never stopping the forward progress to linger at any one spot.
Of course, every conductor is different, even disciples of famous conducting teachers mold the techniques to their own personal style. Nothing is really wrong or more correct as long as what the conductor does is clear and entrances are precise. The exact opposite of Mehta would be Andris Nelsons, Music Director of the Boston Symphony. His extravagant podium antics are the talk of the classical music world. Critics love to make up names for his moves, such as the “trapeze grab” and the “backwards swoop.” The show aside, he gets excellent results and audiences delight in watching him. (A blind test between the two would be an interesting experiment.)
With Mehta’s effortless and commanding presence, the orchestra responded with a magnificent performance. This orchestra is a collection of some of the best musicians in the world and Mehta has them working as a team, while still encouraging them to contribute their individual voices. There is a chamber music feel to the playing, especially in the layering of dynamics: they are always listening to themselves and know how their part fits into the overall texture, making it impossible to play too loudly. Thus, Mehta never had to shush a particular section; even the boldest brass moments never covered the overall texture.
Bardanashvili’s Journey to the End of the Millennium is a complex work with unusual harmonies and technically challenging music for the players. The main problem with this piece, as far as it reception by the audience goes, is that it is music drawn from a larger work: an opera. So, by necessity, it is sectional in nature. One passage after another is transplanted from the opera itself and appended to each other, making it hard to follow. Similar suites from larger works succeed better if the original is more familiar and the passages are recognizable. The overall effect was that this is highly original music and the suite certainly creates a desire to hear the entire opera.
Ravel’s La Valse flashed with hot colors and every note of Ravel’s masterful orchestration came through with clarity, no easy task in such a lush piece with huge waves of sound. Mehta never lost the waltz feel, even in the haziest moments. It is an orchestral showpiece and the performance impressed.
The Dvořák symphony, so very familiar to everyone, sounded fresh and new; a completely unexpected reaction. Lots of usually buried details in the orchestration came through, without making a big deal out of anything in particular. Tempi were exactly right, as were the changing moods of the music, from elaborate symphonic development to folk inspired dances. The famous English horn solo in the slow movement was played simply, in an unsentimental straightforward manner, letting it speak for itself.
There were two other noticeable aspects of the performance. One important one is that the orchestra, every single member, enjoyed playing the concert. Their bonhomie came across to the audience, involving us in the performance itself.
The other is that the audience applauded between each of the movements of the symphony, which is very odd. At DSO concerts, there may be some spontaneous applause at the end of a particularly exciting movement, but that is a rare occurrence. Mostly, Dallas audiences wait until the end of the piece to applaud. What to make of this? Is it possible that the Meyerson was filled with people who do not usually come to concerts and thus are unaware of standard concert manners? Hard to believe.
Maybe it was the simply result of the extraordinary nature of the evening itself and an overwhelming response to a superb performance.