Dallas — Last weekend’s Dallas Symphony Texas Instrument Classical Series program, featuring guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, Music Director of the Nashville Symphony, and violinist Leonidas Kavakos, was a technicolor romp through some of the most exciting works in the repertoire.
The program was bookended by the music of 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Sort of. Much of the Mussorgsky’s compositional output has been arranged and rearranged, including both pieces on this weekend’s program, the beloved Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. Night on Bald Mountain, which was never performed in Mussorgsky’s short lifetime, was rearranged by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov into the version orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony this weekend, typically play. (Interestingly, too, Night on Bald Mountain was made famous to general audiences when Leopold Stokowski made an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement for the Disney film Fantasia.)
The DSO and Guerrero’s excellent performance made the most of this slightly creepy, seasonally appropriate piece, holding grand pauses for ever so long for the most dramatic possible effect. Principal Flute David Buck’s lyrical solo was beautifully phrased, and a special thank you goes to the audience, who held their applause for several seconds, letting the last notes linger in the air, until Guerrero lowered his arms.
Bookending the program was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; again, the orchestral version is an arrangement: in this case it is by Maurice Ravel, of Mussorgsky’s suite for piano. The piece imagines a visitor walking through a gallery displaying artworks by Mussorgsky’s friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. Pictures is an homage to Hartmann, who died at age 39 of an aneurysm a year before Mussorgsky composed his tribute. The piece depicts ten pictures; their musical descriptions are punctuated by a repeating “Promenade” characterizing the viewer’s stroll through the gallery.
Overall, the orchestra’s playing was grand, if a bit under-rehearsed (no surprise there, since part of Thursday morning’s rehearsal and the entire Thursday afternoon rehearsal were canceled due to a gas leak in the perennially maintenance-deficient Meyerson). This is a big piece with big musical gestures, and Guerrero and the orchestra, a few moments of ragged ensemble aside, were up to the task.As a conductor, Guerrero is less bouncy on the podium than he was the last time I saw him conduct the DSO, several years ago. But while his podium presence may have become more understated, his musical approach is still big, lush, and highly Romantic. (Full disclosure: Guerrero and I were in the same undergraduate class at Baylor University, and performed in the Baylor Symphony together for four years.)
Solos were consistently well-played in Pictures, and too numerous to list in full: Russell Campbell on trumpet in the opening “Promenade,” produced a golden, lovely tone. Tim Roberts, on alto saxophone in “The Old Castle,” played elegantly, adding a rarely heard color to the orchestra. Chris Oliver, Associate Principal Trombone, played double duty this weekend: in “Bydio” (“Cattle”), he performed the notoriously difficult “tuba” solo on euphonium, and knocked it out of the proverbial park, with a warm sound and precise phrasing. And that bell in the closing “Great Gates of Kiev” was gloriously played by Daniel Florio.
While the big selling point of the evening might have been the crowd-pleasing “Pictures,” the true thrill was DSO Artist-in-Residence Leonidas Kavakos’ rendering of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Night on Bald Mountain may be spooky, but the Shostakovich has moments that are truly terrifying. And not just for the audience. The technical demands of this concerto are such to daunt all but the most fearless—and skillful—of violinists. Kavakos is certainly that violinist. He is a musician of the highest level; the kind of musician for whom Shostakovich’s concerto was made.
Shostakovich wrote his first violin concerto in 1948, for the Soviet violinist David Oistrakh. Because of Soviet censorship during this period, however, Shostakovich and Oistrakh waited until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, to premiere the concerto. The usual form for concerti is three movements, arranged fast-slow-fast. Shostakovich, however, constructed his concerto in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. The effect of this difference is to lull the listener, in the nocturne-like first movement. Kavakos used ample vibrato as a tool to create intensity and to shape a sense of line.
The first movement in no way prepares listeners for the second, a scherzo which Oistrakh described as “demonic.” The complex, uneven rhythms and extreme technical demands in the solo part are breathtaking when played well, and on Friday evening, Kavakos played them well indeed. While, again, the orchestra might have benefitted from that gas-leak-canceled rehearsal—this is an unusually challenging accompaniment, and there was a bit more messiness than we’re used to hearing from the DSO these days—the focus was almost entirely on the soloist, anyway. Kavakos is a muscular player who knows great playing doesn’t have to be pretty. He isn’t afraid to let his violin growl a bit, an ideal fit for this infernal scherzo.
The concerto’s slow third movement features an unusually long cadenza. Here was the beauty Kavakos eschewed in the scherzo. His expressive power is remarkable: he can seemingly summon any character or tonal color he wishes out of his fiddle. The fourth movement, marked “Burlesque,” is pretty much technically impossible—it is uncategorizably difficult. And yet, right there in the Meyerson, there it was, Kavakos playing the thing as if it were no big deal—an extraordinary finale to an outstanding performance.
» Leonidas Kavakos will also perform with the Dallas Symphony Oct. 25-28, taking on Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, "Turkish"