Dallas — The Dallas Symphony ushered in the holiday season in a subtle way, without jumping directly into “Jingle Bells” and mangers (that’ll happen in December). The concert on Friday evening had more generic selections but ended with almost all of the music from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet.
The concert started with more Tchaikovsky ballet music: selections from Sleeping Beauty. This was followed by an excellent performance of Grieg’s perennially popular Piano Concerto. The Nutcracker occupied the entire second half.
The music-making improved as the concert progressed.
Sleeping Beauty was overplayed with top volume levels reached from the beginning. Conductor Andrew Grams’ podium technique was mannered in that he would jump in the air for the big moments and then crouch under the music stand for the quiet ones. In addition, he threw unnecessary cues directly to the players, who would have entered just fine on their own.
Grams was much better behaved in the performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. This can be attributed to the desire of a conductor of a concerto not to distract from the soloists. But, most likely, it was because of the performance of pianist Andrew Von Oeyen, which managed to be both eloquent and exciting at the same time.
This is a concerto that has fallen out of favor with the current crop of hyper-virtuosi pianists who prefer the transcendently difficult works such as the concerti of Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev. In other times, it was a concert staple with pianists like Van Cliburn and Artur Rubenstein playing it regularly. It is good to see its return to the repertoire.
Von Oeyen bought his own distinctive stamp to the concerto. His is a completely unique approach that brought out Grieg’s gift for melody and sense of drama. His technique is marvelous, and it is hard to imagine a cleaner performance. Some of his tempi were questionable, with fasts rushed and slows lingered over more than usual. This caused the concerto to sound more sectional than it really is. A slower middle section sounded like an inserted movement rather than a part of the whole. However, this is just a matter of personal taste and Von Oyen made it work. The ovation he received afterwards proved this to be true.
We may have thought that the concerto was the highlight of the program, but soon earned differently.
Grams delivered what has to be the best reading of The Nutcracker music in memory. Conducting without a score, audience members saw every detail of the music in his careful and expressive motions. Projected supertitles giving us some basic information on what is going on in the ballet really helped. The orchestra sounded magnificent while Grams gave the listeners a conducting lesson.