Dallas — First off, this week’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra guest conductor, Nicholas McGegan, is not a candidate for the music director spot. He has an excellent reputation, but he is an early-music specialist, so the DSO is not a suitable fit for him, nor him for it. In this season fraught with speculation, it’s rather a relief to have a guest conductor whose work we can evaluate and enjoy with no concern about whether he will be the Anointed One.
Given McGegan’s background—he’s the music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra—it’s perhaps unsurprising that the program would include a symphony by Hadyn, the No. 83 “The Hen,” and one by Beethoven, the No. 2. What is a bit more of a stretch is that the center of the program was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Beatrice Rana.
The Hadyn made a fun start to the evening. The DSO had never performed this symphony before, and the novelty had a generally positive effect. In the first movement, the first violins seem to emulate chickens—thus the symphony’s nickname—and McGegan’s jovial, bouncy podium presence was the perfect counterpoint to the whimsical music. Also, because the orchestra had never played the piece before, McGegan could put his own stamp on the proceedings: this is an orchestra that rarely seems at home in eighteenth-century repertoire, but the Hadyn was a welcome exception. Strings were sprightly and articulations were thoughtful. Entrances were not always precisely together, though, and there were a few more intonation problems than there should have been.
The issues in the Beethoven were different, in part I suspect because this symphony is such a familiar part of the repertoire. It might be a difficult task for any conductor to override an orchestra’s preexisting musical ideas about a work such as this one—and in this case, McGegan didn’t really manage it. The counterbalance, though, is that this piece was generally better-played than the Hadyn, with tighter ensemble and more precision. This is Beethoven at his happiest, and the orchestra and McGegan gave us a cheerful and skillful rendition—just not one that seemed particularly distinctive.
The Prokofiev was a bit of an odd duck on this program, but Beatrice Rana, the Silver Medalist of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is always a popular soloist in the Metroplex. Rana was technically commanding, but Prokofiev tends to orchestrate his concertos so densely that finding a suitable balance is challenging. Thursday evening, Rana’s playing sometimes disappeared nearly entirely into the texture of the orchestra. Rana produces plenty of sound, but is not an overly aggressive player (thankfully). Getting out of her way a bit more would have produced a more interesting performance.
Although McGegan is not a candidate, this performance did raise questions about what kind of personality the Dallas Symphony needs in their music director for the performance quality to continue to rise. Jaap van Zweden is a notorious taskmaster. While an authoritarian approach can produce good results, it can also affect orchestra morale negatively. On the other hand, a particularly affable conductor such as McGegan might not have the right temperament to get the best performances from the musicians—might they get sloppy playing for such a one? Finding the right balance is essential to ensuring the future of the DSO. All of the proposed candidates know their craft, but none seems quite as, well, intimidating as van Zweden. Whether that is a net plus or minus, we’ll soon find out.