Dallas — The conductor parade continues this weekend at the Dallas Symphony with another candidate vying to replace departing Music Director Jaap van Zweden. This week it’s Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno, a former percussionist in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who only started conducting in 2012. His background as a percussionist is surprising because rhythm and tempi were the major demerits of his performance on Thursday evening when I attended.
It was a daunting program. Gimeno, currently music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (OPL), opened with Prokofiev’s delightful so-called “Classical” Symphony No. 1. The composer purposely took up the challenge of writing a symphony like Haydn and Mozart but using his own musical voice. While it was an experiment to see if such a thing was even possible, Prokofiev wrote the masterpiece that would later be named as the foundation of the neo-classical movement that followed.
This breath of fresh air was followed by a heavy storm of a noisy Trombone Concerto written by James MacMillan for Dutch trombonist Jörgen van Rijen. The DSO was a co-commissioner of the work. The concert ended with another symphony, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” that was everything but.
As is the unfortunate pattern these days, Gimeno overplays the dynamics and rushes the fast tempi, which distorts the composer’s carefully constructed architecture. That aside, Gimeno, who has a glorious head of conductor hair, makes a distinguished impression on the podium. His motions are crisp, with expressive independence of his hands, and rarely extravagant. Further, he appears to know the score and has good ideas about how it should go. Yet his distinguished maestroic ministrations are oddly non-communicative. Thus, the concert on Thursday was exciting but marked by some ragged playing, scattered entrances and rambling performances.
Gimeno did his best work with Prokofiev’s remarkable symphony. The first movement was especially clean and the music sparkled. It ended too loudly but that made a dramatic contrast to his super-soft beginning of the second movement. He nicely shaped Prokofiev’s spinning melody but the inner voices were overplayed. The gavotte needed to be lighter on its feet but the last two notes were exceptionally well played. The last movement was rushed and there were places where the orchestra couldn’t keep up with his fleet tempo. However, the sforzandi (loud accents followed by super quiet music) were excellent.
As for the mishmash trombone concerto, van Rijen was impressive as he plowed through the thicket of normal and experimental sounds as well as some incredibly fast triple-tonged notes. Dissonances came in super-loud and super-quiet varieties and traded off with more pleasant passages. Almost humorously, right from the opening and through to the end, the composer amply told us why the instrument is called the slide trombone. However, the short slide down was used so often that it ceased to sound like a sigh and began to sound like whining.
Low cluster rumblings in imitation of the gigantic Tibetan horns followed tonal music, even old-fashioned sequences. Curiously, the trombone soloist and the trombone section had an argument that sounded like prehistoric beasts beating their chests and challenging each other for leadership of the pack. One earsplitting crescendo was effective as a surprising sonic blast but had worn out its welcome when it was repeated.
Perhaps I missed the whole thing and a second hearing would change my opinion. It would have helped to have been provided the score ahead of time because there was one musical surprise—shocks, even—after another in seemingly random order, which made the concerto hard to follow in a thoughtful manner.
The least said about the matter-of-fact, rushed and tearless performance of Tchaikovsky’s sacred suicide note of a symphony the better. Gimeno completely missed the heart-rending program of this stunning work. He delivered a fine and detail-oriented performance of generic Tchaikovsky music, but it wasn’t the “Pathétique.”
This was all the more disappointing because the orchestra played magnificently. Principal clarinetist Gregory Raden played a solo passage in such a hushed manner that there was a collective holding of breath in the audience, as we were entranced with the beauty of his sound. Kudos also go to the other principal winds, especially bassoonist Ted Soluri, flutist David Buck and oboist Erin Hannigan. I was also quite impressed by the guest principal hornist, who I couldn’t see from my seat. But, because it was such as fine job, I was not surprised to have been told that we had a return visit by our much-missed formed principal horn, David Cooper.