Dallas — There was an air of anticipation filling the Winspear Opera House on Sunday afternoon. However, it was not the same as was experienced for the opening the Dallas Opera’s production of Don Giovanni. Then, it was about seeing the performance of the understudy for the title role, Craig Verm, who took over for Mariusz Kwiecień, one of the great purveyors of the title role, who had to cancel for opening night due to illness. History was made. Verm was amazing and, by the end of the performance, he rocketed to the top of the list of the opera world’s great Giovannis. (He sings it again on Friday, if you want to join in on the discovery.)
Sunday’s anticipation was about something completely different. This was a concert by a locally unknown pianist, Andrew von Oeyen, playing a much-loved piano concerto, Rachmaninoff’s third, with The Dallas Opera Orchestra, risen from the pit to the stage and under Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 for an opener. The result was easily as spectacular a success as Verm’s. It was a superlative concert, immediately jumping to my favorite performances of the year, and earned the spontaneous standing ovation and shouts of “bravo” delivered by the audience.
One reservation: We are used to hearing orchestral concerts in the acoustic perfection of the Meyerson Symphony Center. Acoustics in the Winspear are also perfect, but for opera, which is different. Voices on the stage are pointed out at the audience while the orchestra’s sound goes upward from the pit. Putting the orchestra on stage challenges that operatic acoustical arrangement.
The situation was improved by a floor-to-ceiling wooden enclosure on the stage and some hanging reflectors overhead. This mimicked a concert hall’s orchestral shell, reflecting the sound outwards toward the audience. It was still a little on the dry side but made a great improvement. Kudos to the scenic shop at the TDO for constructing such a massive structure and installing it in a day; Don Giovanni played the night before, after all.
Villaume opened the proceedings with a short speech, thanking the stage crew, and offering his rational for the concert. He said that opera orchestras are greatly improved by playing symphonic concerts, as symphonies are enhanced by playing opera. In fact, next door, the Dallas Symphony will follow Villaume’s example and play a complete performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre on May 18 and 20.
The Dallas Opera’s orchestra is smaller than the DSO, with fewer strings, but that array matches the way a full symphony might pare down for Beethoven. Villaume would have added more players if he thought it necessary. Thus, we had a beautifully balanced orchestra for the Beethoven. A few more string players might have helped out for the Rachmaninoff but as it turned out, the smaller orchestra matched the more subtle approach to the bravura concerto taken by both conductor and pianist.
People often question a critic who makes a statement such as “this was a very French performance of the Beethoven,” just because Villaume is obviously French. But, it is a true statement, nevertheless. I overheard some similar comments at intermission. It was both elegant and exciting, controlled yet expansive and many usually unheard details stood out in stark relief.
Beethoven’s Seventh is a symphony that is all about rhythm and is overplayed for an enhanced excitement value. This performance was every bit as exciting as it can be, but was in complete balance as a whole. All four movements are marked with quick, but different, tempi and Villaume paced the symphony’s movements from the first notes, which are usually overplayed, to a climax he saved for the very end.
The second movement, which is usually taken too slowly despite being marked Allegretto, was revelatory at the proper tempo. The third movement, marked Presto, was a gallop, which perfectly transitioned to the final movement, marked Allegro con brio. This last movement was too fast for that tempo marking, but somehow it worked in context.
Risking the danger of hyperbole, let me state that Villaume and pianist von Oeyen delivered one of the best performances of Rachmaninoff’s third concerto in memory — and I have heard a lot of them. It is a standard at the various Cliburn competitions where it is usually pounded and bruised at overly quick tempi. Many professional pianists use it as a virtuoso vehicle dominating the entire performance with an aim at awe by virtue of their blazing technical prowess.
In this performance, while still technically astonishing, Rachmaninoff’s showpiece was played as the symphonically scaled whole that it deserves. Conversely to the way it is usually played, the piece is constructed more like a symphony with piano as equal partners, with long stretches of the piano acting as accompanist as well as moments when it dominates.
Another thing about the performance that stood out was the mind meld between Villaume and von Oeyen. They have played the concerto a number of times together in the past and they have obviously discussed and made decisions about every note and phrase. As a result, the performance was filled with wonderfully romantic rubato: little ritards and accelerandi with artistically arched phrases that would normally be impossible with a symphony conductor and pianist that only had the usual scant couple of rehearsals squeezed into a full symphony season.
Every bit of rubato was played precisely together and conductor and pianist were in constant visual communications, rather than on separate planets. As a result, we heard a very different concept of the concerto, with passages, that are usually buried in the blare, brought out carefully. These details are rarely heard, but they are there in the composer’s masterful writing for both the orchestra and piano.
The orchestra sounded wonderful, with distinguished solos by the principal winds, horns and brass. The strings sounded full and robust despite their reduced numbers. The ensemble and balance were excellent, thanks to Villaume’s compact, expressive and precise, but baton-less, conducting.
The overriding impression of the entire concert was its remarkable clarity, combined with technical mastery, as well as being conceptually unique. On returning home, memories of the performance of both the Beethoven and the Rachmaninoff sent me back to the scores to make notations of the many revelations garnered by this brilliant and thoughtful approach to two masterpieces that I thought I knew quite well.