Dallas — This weekend’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concerts were rather disingenuously billed as “Shostakovich and Beethoven”—disingenuous because the Beethoven on the program was the 8-minute-long Egmont Overture. The real stars of the evening were, yes, the Shostakovich—his glorious Symphony No. 5 in D minor—and Aaron Jay Kernis’ new violin concerto, premiered last month and commissioned by four orchestras, among them the Dallas Symphony.
I’ll admit that “Shostakovich and Kernis” might be more difficult to market, but this concerto has legs, and James Ehnes’ playing is a marvel. First impressive thing: he performed this wickedly complex new concerto from memory. Second: he is a preposterously good violinist, technically, musically, and in every other way that matters. The third movement cadenza, with its left-hand pizzicato runs, inspired little gasps of astonishment from the audience. And he does all this with a calm, almost impassive countenance that utterly belies what is happening sonically.
The concerto itself is one I’d happily hear again. Although some of the orchestration is too thick, occasionally obscuring the soloist, it is a piece that doesn’t take itself too seriously even as it works within a dauntingly complex musical language. Kernis’ own notes about the piece observe that it has a wide-ranging set of musical influences: the first movement, Chaconne, is influenced by the Baroque dance form, while the second, Ballad, takes its cues simultaneously from jazz and the complex harmonies of French composer Olivier Messiaen. The third movement, the most technically daunting of the lot, is called Toccatini, inspired both by the Baroque toccata and by the idea of a fun new martini, and includes over-the-top percussion effects such as a train whistle. This eclecticism, combined with James Ehnes’ virtuosity, results in eminently listenable “new music”—just what we need. This is a concerto that is challenging for the orchestra as well as for the soloist, and the Dallas Symphony, with guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno, impressed.
Gimeno was announced a few weeks ago as a substitute for Jaap van Zweden, who had family matters to attend to. Gimeno is an elegant conductor, with an expressive, nuanced left hand yet a clear downbeat. His Egmont Overture was overly quick, with an ending so fast that it must have been a challenge for the musicians to keep up. But his Shostakovich was masterful—he brought out the best in the musicians. This piece is arguably one of the most perfect symphonies ever composed; while it is performed frequently, it is full of pitfalls for a lesser orchestra than the Dallas Symphony. Here, the strings were vibrant and lush; the violas sounded especially rich. In the second movement, notable solos from Principal Bassoon Theodore Soluri and Concertmaster Alex Kerr added panache, while the iconic third movement featured magnificent playing from the pair of harps and Principal Oboe Erin Hannigan and Principal Clarinet Gregory Raden. While, again, tempi in the final movement were a bit speedy for my taste, Principal Horn David Cooper spooled out a gorgeous solo, and the orchestra sustained its considerable energy through the final notes.