Dallas — The Dallas Symphony subscription concerts this past weekend were conducted by a last-minute replacement for David Zinman, who is suffering with a back problem. He was replaced by the excellent conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, playing the same selections as originally announced.
The program was interesting because Beethoven’s second piano concerto was placed in between two sets of variations from different eras. Edward Elgar’s seminal work, Enigma Variations, was introduced in 1899 while Aaron Copland’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, premiered in 1944. Both works have a specific program that the music strives to emulate. Copeland’s music was written for a narrative ballet but stories that inspired Elgar’s variations are purposely…well, an enigma.
Appalachian Spring is widely considered to be the musical definer of the essence of America. Copland achieved this by using a conglomeration of pentatonic scales and a developing a harmonic language that depends on the contrast and dissonance created between the use of major and minor triads, and creating a sense of the big-sky vacantness of the landscape and the folk elements of fiddle tunes, proto-jazz, the uncertainness created by the use of mixed meters, and canted dances. Appalachian Spring was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Harth-Bedoya brought out all of these elements and instilled the performance with the pioneer’s positive dynamism that they required to start out for parts unknown.
Originally written for a small ensemble of 14 instruments, this expansion for full orchestra dates from 1945. Harth-Bedoya’s careful reading, aimed at clarity, was one of the reasons that he achieved such a success in this performance. He gave the principal players some liberty to play the solo passages without interference. He mostly kept that chamber music feeling but it was occasionally marred when, driven by a recalcitrant brass section, he let it explode in the “orchestraness” inherent in the expanded scoring.
Elgar’s more sophisticated set of variations also serve as musical sketches of those close to him including one variation at the end that is a self portrait. Of course, it is even more of a mystery these days because the subjects of his musical wit are long gone and we only have some contemporary journal entries to see how close Elgar came. Since we know who they are, how about some photos and brief biographical information in the program? Maybe that doesn’t matter because Elgar hinted at enigmas galore that are hidden in the score.
Elgar’s set of variations is obviously one of Harth-Bedoya’s signature pieces and he conducted it with nuance balanced with drama. Once again, things got rowdy too quickly and the brass section was, again, a bad influence. However, it was a rough performance anyway, with some wrong entrances and sloppy playing—unusual for the DSO. Once again, the solo passages greatly impressed but the overall impression was that they needed at least one more rehearsal.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 received a thoughtful performance by pianist Jonathan Biss. His first piano concerto was actually written after this one but, since it was published first, it grabbed the moniker of No. 1. Thus, unlike what its name implies, the second concerto shows both the influence of Haydn and Mozart but looks forward to the revolutionary composer he would become. Biss took all this into account and he played with a combination of classical class and romantic rubato. Unfortunately, he tended to rush the virtuoso passages leaving Harth-Bedoya and the DSO in his wake, valiantly tying to catch up.
Certainly, things went much better as the run continued. The Nov. 1 performance felt more like the dress rehearsal than the opening night.