Dallas — Pops concerts are designed to be crowd-pleasers, and few programs could be more crowd pleasing than an all-Gershwin program.
Such was the bill this weekend at the Dallas Symphony, for the opening of its pops subscription series. These were not the first concerts of the season: the previous weekend featured screenings of the film La La Land, with the Dallas Symphony providing the soundtrack, and on Thursday evening, they presented a run out concert in Denton with conductor Ruth Reinhardt and Dallas Symphony Associate Concertmaster Eunice Keem performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto.
Still, this is an orchestra that just weeks ago was enjoying a well-deserved summer break, and among moments of brilliance, there were some indications that all the vacation sand hasn’t quite been washed off—ensemble was not as tight as we’re used to hearing from the DSO.
Under Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik, muted strings shimmered in Gershwin’s gorgeous “Lullaby,” a piece originally written for string quartet, in its small orchestra version. Likewise, the Overture to Funny Face and the Cuban Overture, with its Latin rhythms prominently showcasing the percussion section, were top-notch. Still, these are pieces that the orchestra played in an all-Gershwin program just last January. That’s quite a bit of programming overlap.
Featured vocalist Doug LaBrecque provided a smooth, appealing timbre and delightful showmanship for several of Gershwin’s best-known songs, as well as his first hit, “Swanee.” The repartee between LaBrecque and Tyzik was polished and fun. And a definite highlight of the evening was LaBrecque’s vocals on “I Got Rhythm,” accompanied by DSO percussionist Doug Howard. Howard, stationed at the front of the stage, used tap shoes and a small table to replicate the sounds of Fred Astaire’s performance. An actual tap dancer could not have been more charming, and would have been less novel.
The centerpieces from the show were 1997 Cliburn Competition winner Jon Nakamatsu’s performances. On the first half of the program, he played the first movement Allegro from Gershwin’s Concerto in F; on the second half, he played Rhapsody in Blue, with a magnificent opening glissando by clarinetist Paul Garner. Nakamatsu is a fine performer, and produced respectful, sensitive renditions of both pieces. Tyzik did not always help the orchestra work with Nakamatsu, though, so the electricity of close collaboration was missing.
Again, too, both LaBrecque and Nakamatsu joined Tyzik four years ago for a similar program with the Fort Worth Symphony. Even Nakamatsu’s encore, a lively and fun rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” was the same.
I had the feeling throughout much of this performance that I’d seen it all before, and in fact I mostly had, albeit in two separate performances with two different orchestras. Gershwin was only 38 when he died from a brain tumor, so his musical output was proportionally limited. So for an all-Gershwin program, the choices are not infinite. And I get that conductors enjoy their working relationships with particular soloists for particular repertoire. I’m not faulting that. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing that we could hear all three movements of the Concerto in F, not just the first one, or perhaps, as an encore, at least one of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for solo piano instead of the Joplin, however well played.