Dallas — The final performance in the 2016 Basically Beethoven Festival featured members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s near-universally recognized Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C Major. This was the last in a series of four free Sunday afternoon recitals that filled Dallas City Performance Hall with a mix of seasoned concertgoers seeking an oasis in North Texas’s late-summer classical musical drought, more casual concertgoers, and families with children. Lots and lots of children.
While earlier performances were kid-friendly, such as the animal themed program two weeks earlier that included several short pieces, Sunday’s program was less amenable to shorter attention spans. Well, that’s not quite true: the Rising Star recital that preceded the main performance featured two teenaged pianists, Jason Lin and Jason Zhu. The two Jasons ably constructed their half-hour program to fit the needs of younger listeners, incorporating four short pieces, one solo turn apiece followed by two selections for piano four hands. With one notable exception, these were fun, accessible works: Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, played by Jason Lin, and Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 4 and Schubert’s Marche Militaire performed by both young men. While at times each piece could have used a bit more flair, especially the piano four hands selections, both musicians performed with admirable facility and musicianship.
The one exception to the “fun, accessible” category was the first movement of Carl Vine’s Sonata No. 1, performed by Jason Zhu. Vine is a thorny, technically demanding contemporary composer, and I was at first doubtful that a 15-year-old could handle the rigors of this piece. But I needn’t have worried. Zhu’s dominating musicianship proved more then up to the considerable task in front of him. Performing from memory, Zhu alternated skillfully between the harmonic tangle of the initial theme and the surprisingly lyrical moments that followed. Lin and Zhu are both musicians to watch as they continue to mature.
The Feature Performance, surprisingly, was less successful than the Rising Star program. Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, while hard to avoid as a young string player, is less often performed by adult professionals, so I was actually looking forward to hearing a cogent, thoughtful interpretation from some of the area’s best string players. The musicians were Dallas Symphony members Shu Lee and Kaori Yoshida, violins, Valerie Dimond, viola, and Nan Zhang, cello. This was not the crisply precise Mozart I had hoped for, alas—it was freer and less tidy than Classical conventions usually dictate. However, this familiar piece was a crowd-pleaser—exactly what is called for in these free and justifiably popular concerts.
The Cello Quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert was simply not a good programming choice for this concert. While it is an iconic piece of Schubertian chamber music, it is also long—much too long for the young kids who populated Sunday’s audience. Not only that, but the ensemble sounded under-rehearsed, and had a surprising number of pitch problems. Cellist Shuyi Wang, who lives and performs in China but received her Artist Certificate from SMU, joined the quartet on the Schubert.
Basically Beethoven is a wonderful addition to the Dallas music scene. Because it is free and occurs in July, a time in Texas too hot for children to play outdoors for long, many young people attend, and for many of them it may be their first classical concert. Although these are not explicitly children’s concerts, even many of the adults in the audience seem to be infrequent concertgoers. Thus, creating programs that are fun and entertaining as well as musically excellent seems to be a reasonable goal. Other Basically Beethoven concerts I have attended achieved that tricky balance. This one was a rare exception.