Dallas — Any young conductor that has a guest spot with the Dallas Symphony this season is more than likely a candidate under consideration for the post of Music Director vacated by Jaap van Zweden. Thusly guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado was being scrutinized when he conducted a program of Debussy and Ravel on Thursday with the DSO in the Meyerson Symphony Center. He is a hot property right now. Audiences love the Spaniard as much for his curly mop of hair as for his musical performances. Critics are mixed with some waxing ecstatic and others, while praising his talent and musicianship, are waning to the more reserved side.
It was an odd experience to see him conduct. He is full of dichotomies.
Heras-Casado is energetic to a fault yet there are times when he is motionless. He crouches down to indicate a soft passage. In the big moments, he extends his arms fully but is other moments his hands barely move. Many of his downbeats go upwards and occasionally he gets to the beat slightly ahead of its true place and strikes a pose n the extra time, as though there was a photographer hidden somewhere. There were times when his, shall we say, creative technique created some audible confusion inn the orchestra. But he certainly communicates his wishes. His movements range from jerky to completely smooth and standard patterns to waving his arms without delivering a definite ictus.
He is a protégé of Pierre Boulez and that influence is evident. Like Boulez, he doesn’t use a baton. Unlike the careful and controlled conducting of Boulez he borders on the wild side of podium deportment. He reminds you of Boulez—but a Boulez on speed. (You can see an example of the cool and collected Boulez conducting Stravinsky’s brutal The Rite of Spring here; and a short example of Heras-Casado here, although it doesn’t display the range of his unique conducting technique.)
Heras-Casado’s frenetic gestures tended to frequently raise the volume level to “too loud.” It also gave, agree or not, both Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from his ballet Daphnis et Chloe an inner energy and drive that is usually not typical of other interpretations of these two pieces.
However, that energy and drive served him well in a spectacular performance of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with the incendiary French pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. He played this incredibly difficult concerto with ease, which is not to say that he didn’t play up a storm with it. He didn’t have to work hard to make that happen. When the one-movement concerto ended, and to finally quiet the ecstatic audience, he played an encore that was also by Ravel, but completely different in character, Pavane pour une infante défunte.
Another highlight was hearing our new principal flute, David Buck, play the extensive flute solo is the middle of the Daphnis et Chloe suite. It is a famous excerpt and he played with a brilliant steely sound with hot colors flashing and some welcome serenity as it winds down.
Heras-Casado added in another piece by Debussy, his two-part “Rondes de printemps” from Images. This was not as successful as the rest of the program. It didn’t seem to go anywhere and his constant reference to the score suggests that he didn’t know it as well as everything else.
Overall, Heras-Casado was a brilliant presence on the podium and delivered a fine, yet slightly flawed, performance.
He has a deep interest in both early music and the music of our time, all of which is to his credit. He may be just what we need in Dallas after the heavy German romantic-era repertoire delivered by van Zweden.