Dallas — Two weeks ago, I figured I’d heard the best Dvořák of the season when I heard the Boston Symphony play Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in Symphony Hall.
I was wrong.
Thursday night, under guest conductor Krzysztof Urbański, the Dallas Symphony delivered a thrilling performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” that in most respects was the equal of the Boston performance, and in some was better.
A performance of a chestnut like the “New World” is a bit of a dangerous proposition. It’s famous for a reason, sure—it has some of the most memorable melodies in all of symphonic literature, for one thing. However, a performance of a familiar work such as this one can be like the barn Don DeLillo describes in his novel White Noise. It’s “the most photographed barn in America,” and one character observes that “‘No one sees the barn’” anymore. But music has this advantage over visual art: because each performance is unique, performers and conductors have an opportunity to create new interpretations, to help us see the barn, rather than all the iterations of the barn that have come before.
Urbański, Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, made a variety of unusual decisions Thursday evening, and most of them worked well. Best of all was his decision to place English hornist David Matthews in the balcony for his famous solo in the slow movement. Matthews’ rich, full, utterly gorgeous sound and thoughtful phrasing floated through the Meyerson as Urbański turned his gaze toward him. The effect was spellbinding, and practically speaking kept the solo from blending into the texture of the orchestra. Strings, too, were often brilliant—the second movement octet was magical, with flawless ensemble. (If only people could have held in their percussive coughing here.) On the flip side, the fourth movement was just too fast. Yes, it’s marked Allegro con fuoco, but a fiery Allegro doth not a Presto make—it seemed frantic. Still, the overall effect was one of a carefully crafted, precise but not micromanaged, version of a familiar favorite. This barn we could see.
On the first half of the program is Polish film composer Wojciech Kilar’s 1988 piece Orawa for string orchestra. It uses a minimalistic style reminiscent of Steve Reich or John Adams, rhythmically propulsive and tonal. This composition, which was enthusiastically received Thursday evening, is “new music” for people who don’t like new music.
Another Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin, is also featured this weekend. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor was ably handled by 23-year-old soloist Jan Lisiecki. Like the Dvořák, this concerto can be a warhorse, but Lisiecki’s playing was sensitive and nuanced, with a light touch and effective phrasing.
This program gives new life to the familiar—if you, like me, had dismissed this weekend’s concerts as more of the same, think again, and get thee to the Meyerson.