Dallas — The final Dallas Symphony offering in this year’s Soluna Festival is a rare opportunity to hear the underused Lay Family Concert Organ in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” Symphony. This is a piece that must be experienced live for full effect—audiences feel more than hear the lowest organ notes.
This impression was exaggerated Friday night, since conductor Jaap Van Zweden chose unusually subdued organ dynamics throughout. It worked well in the first movement, but in the second movement, the famous Maestoso theme was quirkily balanced, with the piano’s runs for four hands more prominent than the organ’s chords. Both are marked piano in the score, true, but then so is the melody, contained in the strings. These are not all equal in reality, but the usual choice is to allow the organ more prominence.
I have mixed feelings about Van Zweden’s choice. It was an interesting and no doubt controversial approach to a well-known and thrilling musical moment. (I heard the woman behind me whisper to her child at this point, something about “the pig.” Bonus points if you get the film reference.* Even more bonus points for not talking during symphony concerts.)
The organist for this weekend’s concerts is Stefan Engels of Southern Methodist University. Dallas Symphony Orchestra organist Mary Preston is retiring at the end of this season, so it’s surprising that she didn’t get one more opportunity to perform this iconic piece.
The other piece on the Saint-Saëns double bill is his Piano Concerto No. 5, “Egyptian,” with French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. Lortie is a dynamic performer, bouncing on his bench as he plays, nodding and smiling as if he is having The Most Fun, and occasionally gesturing with his left hand—is he conducting the orchestra? Or his own right hand? Is he waving to the audience? His playing was utterly charming, though, delicate and sensitive without being fussy. His use of pedal produced a wide variety of tonal colors. This was technically and musically proficient playing of the highest caliber.
Artist-in-residence Conrad Tao composed a world premiere for this weekend’s concerts; titled “Alice,” this 15-minute piece is more a homage to a medical condition known as “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome,” from which Tao suffered as an adolescent, than it is to the novel—although the famous Lewis Carroll story gets a tip of the (mad) hat, too.
The piece itself mostly seems to move in circles, with the occasional slapstick crack or trombone glissando interrupting long passages of noodling in the strings. Finally, there is a crescendo to an abrupt climax, fading to a scraping solo in percussion, then silence. The last two minutes were the most interesting and innovative in a piece that struck me as rather too long relative to its number of musical ideas.
This concert will give listeners a lot to think about. Louis Lortie’s playing alone is worth the trip; the rest of the program may be more polarizing.
(*The film is Babe; here's actor James Cromwell, as the farmer, singing to his pig, Babe, using the tune from Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony. It doesn’t substitute for hearing the real thing, but it’s smile-worthy.)