Dallas — Much of the music of composer John Adams is as polarizing as it is transfixing, perhaps especially his operas, such as Doctor Atomic, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Nixon in China. But one piece, probably his best-known, suffers from no such weight. That is his Short Ride in a Fast Machine, with which he chose to begin his self-conducted program of his own and others’ works last weekend with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
The four-minute piece, a work of postminimalism, features the driving rhythms (here initially laid down by a wood block wielded expertly by percussionist Dan Florio) that we’re familiar with in minimalism, without minimalism’s sometimes stifling repetition. It’s justifiably an audience favorite, as contemporary music goes, and warmed them up for Adams’ Violin Concerto, with soloist Leila Josefowicz. As a conductor, Adams is not flashy, and has the considerable merit of a clear beat. Most importantly, though, the orchestra performed well under his leadership.
Adams’ concerto is in the conventional three-movement fast-slow-fast format. The first movement, rather than using an Italian tempo marking as its designation, is instead called “Quarter-note = 78.” This movement features textured playing in the orchestra, with the two synthesizers adding an otherworldly backdrop. The second movement, “Chaconne. Body through which the dream flows” uses Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon in D as its base. The basses and cellos play it almost continuously, but in Adams’ hands it is a distorted version of the canon, moving through more and less-familiar shapes, some of them ominous. This is not the cheerful wedding-favorite Pachelbel, anymore, as the violin plays over the top. The third movement is an insane romp through many of the potential technique challenges available to a violinist, and ends with brio.
The concerto is an ideal vehicle for Josefowicz—she is a player who does everything well and is seemingly fearless in this thorny contemporary repertoire. By the third movement, the most difficult of a very challenging lot, I was mostly making notes about her formidable abilities—her spiccato, her ricochet. This is a concerto worth multiple listens, to be sure, but equally, it is an opportunity for the very best players to pull out all the stops, and Josefowicz did.
Adams’ program was a brilliantly crafted one. After intermission, the first offering was Debussy’s Sacred and Profane Dances for harp and strings, featuring Principal Harp Emily Levin. After the auditory inundation of the violin concerto, the Debussy was a welcome rest for the ears. Levin’s playing was appealing and sure—she evoked a variety of tonal colors, was technically and musically rock-solid, and displayed a delightful stage presence, to boot.
The auditory break was certainly over as the last piece on the ambitious program began. Respighi’s Roman Festivals includes big string sections, piano AND organ, and three trumpets in the balcony as well as the usual three onstage. Oh, and a mandolin, played by Kim Platko, even gets a brief solo in the third movement. This is mostly a joyful representation of Italian holidays, with music to match. (Oh, except for the first movement, which represents the Circus Maximus and the early Christian martyrs being attacked by wild beasts—that’s not so nice.) Roman Festivals is fun music—certainly more technically difficult than the more familiar Pines of Rome, but worth it for an orchestra up to the task, as the Dallas Symphony emphatically was.