Dallas — Leonidas Kavakos, this year’s Artist-in-Residence with the Dallas Symphony, is certainly one of the best violinists in the world. Kavakos’ spellbinding performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 last week and his sensitive, beautifully ornamented Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 this week are bound to be remembered as highlights of this Dallas Symphony Orchestra season.
As a conductor, however, he is less apt, and the Dallas Symphony succeeded in spite of him rather than because of him in their performance Thursday evening. As was often the case in Mozart’s lifetime, Kavakos was the de facto conductor during his performance of the concerto—as well as for the Mozart Symphony No. 31, “Paris,” and Dvořák Symphony No. 7 that followed. Conducting while playing is a tricky proposition at best, and usually involves the concertmaster doing a fair share of the real conducting, keeping the orchestra together, shaping phrases, and so forth—after all, the soloist and erstwhile conductor is facing the wrong direction, and also, you know, playing a concerto. Most of the time, this kind of musical multitasking is ill-advised, although with an eighteenth-century concerto and a reduced orchestra, it can work. The orchestra operates essentially as a chamber ensemble, looking to one another rather than to their ostensible leader. And so it was Thursday night. Kavakos’ performance of the concerto was certainly commendable—he added some novel ornamentation and brief cadenzas that added interest to this oft-played standard, and his brilliant tone filled the hall. But he didn’t actually do much visible conducting.
Kavakos moved to the podium and exchanged bow for baton for Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony. According to the program notes, astonishingly, the DSO had not performed this symphony since 1968. There are certainly reasons for this—other of Mozart’s symphonies probably have more audience appeal, and the “Paris” is technically rather tricky, or indeed very tricky when the third and final movement, marked just “Allegro,” is taken at the lightning pace that Kavakos chose on Thursday. The orchestra sounded remarkably solid, considering—Kavakos used relatively large string sections, by Classical-era standards, of 12 first violins, 10 seconds, eight violas, six cellos, and four basses, which can make ensemble trickier. And his conducting, with large but somewhat mystifying gestures, didn’t seem to offer much support.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 also fared surprisingly well—the orchestra sounded great, with remarkable ensemble and unified phrasing. Erin Hannigan, Principal Oboe, and David Heyde, Acting Principal Horn, both offered lovely solos. But I’m not sure how much they were aided by Kavakos. He is a genius of a violinist, and many brilliant violinists eventually become excellent conductors. He’s just not quite there yet.