Dallas — Guest conductor Jun Märkl took the Dallas Symphony on a hectic journey through French music on Thursday evening. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the glorious, and mostly ignored, Lay Family Organ, the program contained two show pieces for the instrument: Poulenc’s pseudo-15th century organ concerto and the ever-popular organ symphony by Saint-Saëns.
They also played Messiaen’s orchestral version of his suite, L’Ascension, which sort of fit in because he later reworked it for organ. Messiaen’s suite works better in this orchestral version as opposed to his later adaption of it for organ. We recently heard that version on the organ recital presented as part of the same 25th anniversary celebration. You can read my review of that concert here.
The guest organist was Vincent Dubois, who was recently appointed one of three “titular” organists on the staff of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. These days, competitions seem to be the road to success and so it is with Dubois. In 2002 he won both the Calgary International
Organ Competition and International Competition of Toulouse.
Poulenc’s organ concerto received a fine performance although there was some difficulty in communication between Märkl and Dubois. Part of this is caused by the physical layout of the Meyerson. To create an impressive façade of pipes, organ faces the concert hall that puts the organist’s back towards the conductor. A closed circuit television system is not the same as eye-to-eye contact. Add that to a short rehearsal schedule and some communication problems are understandable.
It is impossible to further review this performance without discussing Märkl.
He comes from a distinguished musical family. His father is a German violinist and his mother is a Japanese pianist. His résumé lists the well-known conducting pedagogue Gustav Meier as well as the brilliant, but eccentric, conductor Sergiu Celibidache, as mentors. It is the combination of these two influences that explains his approach to conducting technique.
Meier’s name appears on almost all of today’s crop of conductors, myself included. His approach is all about inviting the orchestra to make music with the conductor and never being the “traffic cop.” Celibidache was also not a traffic cop but his approach was to indicate the Zen (he was a student of Zen Buddhism) character of the music and for exaggerated tempi. He was also known for demanding much more rehearsal time before concerts than orchestras usually schedule.
For all Märkl’s precise movements, apparently planned, the results were mixed. For example, right from the start, all the attacks on the brass chorales in the opening of the Messiaen were not precisely together. Almost, but not quite.
So it went all evening. His attack motions were firm but always just ahead of the sound. Perhaps, like with Celibidache, more rehearsal time would have let the orchestra be more in sync with his apparently exact motions. The problems might also have been due to his efforts to add in Meier’s avoidance of being a traffic cop and overlaying that on top of Celibidache’s interpretive motions.
Another part of the difficulty was his tendency to follow Celibidache’s concept of tempo. In the Saint-Saëns, the tempo in the first movement was so fast that the winds could barely keep up with the fast off-beat repeated notes. The less nimble bassoon had the hardest job. They all did the best they could, but it was a scramble.
The gorgeous slow movement was exquisitely shaped and beautifully played, but it lacked direction. It wasn’t exactly too slow, but it seemed to hang in a suspended Zen meditative state. This is not a criticism because Märkl made it work. When the tempo returned, it was like we were awakened from a trance.
Lastly, Märkl tended to overplay the dynamics. In the Saint-Saëns, he reached maximum volume just a few minutes into the symphony. In the truly exciting finale, the organ enters on a huge solo chord. Dubois pulled out all of the big stops and shook the room. This left nowhere to go as the finale built to its apotheosis.
In short, Märkl is a conundrum. He was impressive at times and every little motion constantly demonstrated his command of the music. But eventually, he began to look mannered and pre-choreographed. None of this would have mattered as much as it did if the performance had been cleaner.