Dallas — It was certainly a grand night at the symphony. American conductor James Gaffigan made a much welcome return to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s recently available podium. The Meyerson Symphony Center was filled, one presumes, with an enthusiastic audience to hear Tchaikovsky’s much-loved Piano Concerto No. 1 with the young Uzbek-born pianist Behzod Abduraimov.
The concerto was absolutely spectacular (more about that later). It is a tribute to Gaffigan’s star quality that most of the audience stuck around to hear Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. While this is a wonderful symphony, the audience usually thins when a very popular piece ends the first half.
The program opened with two different but similar pieces; similar in that they both feature a solo trumpet or two and different in that one was an example of John Adams’ minimalism and the other resplendent with Aaron Copland’s unmistakably American harmonies.
The Adams piece was his Tromba lontana (“Distant Trumpet”), dating from 1986. Trumpeters Ryan Anthony and Kevin Finamore were situated at opposite sides of the stage playing an antiphonal dialog reminiscent of pre-Baroque church music. The orchestra muttered the usual repeated pattern and harmonic progressions. Both trumpeters played with a clear golden tone and excellent intonation but the limited menu of fanfares Adams supplies began to wear out.
Just as we were tiring of Adams, the entire mood and musical landscape changed as the DSO went directly into Copland’s magical Quiet City. Finamore was replaced with English Hornist David Matthews and a much more interesting back-and-forth began. Since the program didn’t mention that one piece would meld into the other, it would be fascinating to ask the audience members what they thought happened. The pieces were both quiet but completely different.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is practically North Texas’ unofficial anthem. Van Cliburn shocked the world when he won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. Ever since, it is a standard at piano competitions, including the one in Fort Worth named after the lanky pianist from Kilgore.
We were expecting a fine performance with every note in place and a lot of sound, right from the beginning, especially from a young pianist.
Were we ever surprised! Abduraimov delivered an exceptionally thoughtful performance with the loudest moments modulated to the capabilities of the piano, the resonance of the hall and the level of the orchestra. He never once overplayed the instrument and there was nary a “bang” to be found.
Every phrase was lovingly shaped but rubato at the end of phrases was just enough to make his effect without tipping over into sentimentality (as so often happens). Tempi were fast, and he rushed in the last movement, but no tempo was out of line. Further, even though his technical mastery is complete, he didn’t “show off” how nimble his fingers are for an instant.
Future performances of this concerto by the young artist will surely grow and mature, and they will be different—but not better.
The Schumann symphony rewarded everyone who was thinking about leaving early. Gaffigan brought out all of its considerable beauties and managed to minimize the composer’s over-scoring. Sections that are usually muddy, due to everyone playing constantly for extended periods, sounded almost, well, transparent without some of the usual thinning of the score.
It didn’t get the ecstatic response from the audience that the concerto elicited, but the reception was appreciative and respectful, and maybe that is better.