Dallas — James Gaffigan, a young American conductor and possible successor to Jaap van Zweden, was on the podium for the Dallas Symphony’s concert on Thursday evening. His performance was difficult to assess because, while he was frequently on, he was occasionally off on some important interpretive aspects.
The opening piece was Aaron Copland’s delightful El salón México. The salon Copland had in mind had stratification of the music to fit the customers. There were three halls: one for upper class people dressed normally, another less proper one for the working class wearing shoes and overalls. and the last for the peasants’ foot stomp with bare feet. Copland goes through the cycle of three dance halls twice.
Gaffigan certainly caught the mood and managed to accentuate the canted mixed meter of Copland’s complex rhythmic soup. But the three strata could have had some more characterization. Still, bravo to Gaffigan for playing a piece of music of our time and getting our spirits up with Copland’s toe-tapping piece.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a favorite throughout the musical world but, because of its frequent appearance at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, it is almost a local anthem. Pianist Stephen Hough did the honors and delivered a high voltage performance. Rachmaninoff wrote a series of 24 variations, mostly in A minor, on the 24th of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin. However, he grouped them into three sections mirroring a standard fast/slow/fast layout of a concerto with three movements.
This is a very difficult piece to put together, what with all of the changes in tempo and musical mood. Hough set some quick tempi but Gaffigan was right with him almost all the way. It was a spectacular performance that will only improve as they play it more on subsequent concerts.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is a perennial favorite and Gaffigan and the Dallas Symphony, especially the solo players, gave it an excellent performance. While it may sound ebullient and brilliant, the composer wrote that the hidden program is about a subject that he returned to time and again—fate, and the lack of our abilities to avoid its crushing blows. This soupçon of sadness that overlays the symphony could have been more present, but it was a virtuoso performance from start to finish.
The only other complaint is that much of the symphony’s loud parts were too loud. This means that the really big moments, and there are quite a few, had nowhere to go to rise above previously reached dynamic levels. This was especially noticeable at the end of the last movement, where a constant level of fortissimo was present for almost 10 minutes. The really big explosion at the end was still excellent and truly thrilling, what with the blaring brass in top form, but it would have been more effective if it could have raised just one step above what came before it.
However, Gaffigan is a fine and highly skilled conductor with superb musicianship. He is young, energetic and skilled in the standard repertoire as well as an advocate for new music. But most importantly, he lets the members of the orchestra play without trying to micromanage how every note sounds. He is a strong candidate to invite to stick around.