Dallas — At first glance, the Dallas Symphony program on Thursday looked like guest conductor Pinchas Sternberg just picked a couple of his favorite pieces. However, his program came into focus. Steinberg’s concert covered and contrasted three very different nationalistic schools of composition in the late 1800’s.
The concert opened with a work from France: César Franck’s dark and brooding tone poem, Le Chasseur maudit. It premiered in 1883, shortly before his death in 1890. Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter gave a dazzling performance of Robert Schumann’s Concerto for piano in A minor, dating from 1846. The program closed with the massive Symphony No. 8 in G major by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, which premiered in 1890.
Although there was an adequately sized audience, there were some noticeably empty seats at the Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday. Perhaps this was because there is so much going on in the performing arts right now and audiences are torn about what to attend. On Friday, The Dallas Opera welcomed home its much-lauded production of Moby-Dick, by Jake Heggie and Gene Sheer. Concurrently, the opera is also presenting a stunning production of Tchaikovsky’s melodic tragedy, Eugene Onegin.
Another reason might be that the program didn’t look all that interesting, although it certainly was. The opener by Franck is little known. In fact, Franck’s music is rarely played these days. Only his glorious violin sonata and his works for organ get hearings. Dvořák’s lyrical Eighth symphony suffers from its placement between the composer’s two most popular symphonies on either side: the stormy and dramatic Seventh and the familiar Ninth (“From the New World”). Whatever the reason, anyone not there missed a memorable concert. (Fear not: It continues through Sunday afternoon.)
Steinberg, who was born in Israel, is a completely polished conductor. He is elegant and uses small precise gestures, but he can go large when the music demands some excitement from the podium. He is also an instrumental performer: a fine violinist who studied with Jascha Heifetz. He is currently the Chief Conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and a frequent guest conductor for the great orchestras of the world.
Franck’s tone poem is based on a ballad by Gottfried August Büger and tells a tale of a Count that went hunting on the Sabbath: a huge sin at the time. A fearful and mysterious voice condemns him to eternal torment as punishment.
Steinberg let the horn section play out at the beginning, even though it is only marked forte. However, nothing says a hunt like horn calls. When the main theme arrived in the celli, Steinberg allowed it to sing with broad and sweeping motions. When things got strange, with the delivered curse, the energized performance brought Hector Berlioz’s earlier Symphonie Fantastique (1830) to mind.
The star of the evening was pianist Ingrid Fliter, who delivered an exceptional performance of Schumann’s concerto. It was magnificent, carefully considered and definitive.
This is a subtle concerto, full of great beauty from start to finish with little of the flash in other concertos, such as those by Liszt. This is not to minimize its difficulties, which are legendary. But the concerto, which was written for the composer’s wife (who played the premiere), needs an extraordinary pianist who is a musician first and a technician second. Fliter’s combination and mastery of these two skills resulted in a superlative performance.
She carefully layered the dynamics, even bringing out the top note in the homophonic chorale that opens the work. When she got to the famous first movement cadenza, she started softly but with an underlying and impatient energy that wanted to expand, get faster and louder, and finally let loose with a flurry of big chords. But, unlike most performances, this explosion wasn’t the top of the cadenza. Her aim was to the trill that followed. It was a thrilling destination after the harmonic onslaught, a precarious perch that finally tipped over due to musical gravity and it barreled to the end of the movement.
There were way too many such touches that were just as effective to address here. All of them demonstrated effective and original thinking about how this concerto should go.
There is only one minor quibble that has nothing to do with the music. Audiences want to see the face of the performer: there is much to learn about interpretation from facial expressions. Unfortunately, her hair hung down and covered her face for much of the time.
Dvořák made a concerted effort to write a symphony that was completely different from his stormy and dramatic No. 7. In this, he was following Beethoven’s lead in writing pairs of contrasting symphonies. The No. 8 was written in response to his admission to Prague Academy. In keeping with the occasion, he packs all four movement of the symphony with his beloved Bohemian folk music. Steinberg’s tenure with the Budapest Philharmonic was evident in his handling of these folk influences. Steinberg built up a sonic storm in the finale, brought it down, and then rebuilt again. He saved the loudest moment for the conclusion, something that rarely happens.
About Steinberg: He used minimal gestures all evening, perfectly suited to the music at hand. In addition, with pick-ups and transitional notes, his gestures foreshadowed what was coming next. He kept dynamics under control, occasionally shushing a section with a raised left hand that was louder than the texture. Occasionally, he eschewed formal beat patterns and freely shaped the flow of the music. However, he was always precise and clear when needed. The only time that he let his gestures get away from him was two passages in the third movement of the Dvořák. He went a little wild when the horns performed a very loud trill, with their bells raised in the air. It was only noticeable because it was so exceptional.