Dallas — Three well-chosen 20th-century works made for a fascinating concert by the Dallas Chamber Symphony and conductor Richard McKay Tuesday night at Moody Performance Hall, taking the audience on a journey through the American heartland, Buenos Aires, and Switzerland.
Nebraska-born Howard Hanson often evoked the wide-open spaces of the American continent in his unabashedly romantic, large-scale symphonic tapestries; in his Fantasy-Variation on a Theme of Youth, Hanson distilled that breadth into a sort of miniature concerto for piano and strings, which, in 11 minutes, creates a sort of grand serenity. McKay and pianist Jonathan Tsay—the latter strategically placed in the center of the orchestra, facing the audience—created an appropriate momentum and emotional aura here, allowing Hanson’s impeccable orchestration to wash over the listener. Some slight raggedness in the ensemble of 25 strings barely disturbed the overall sweep of this tightly woven structure; McKay and Tsay especially demonstrated a fine sense of dramatic timing.
Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, who elevated the music of the tango into high art, created, over a period of five years in 1965-70, four separate impressions of the passing seasons in Buenos Aires, conceived for various instruments and ensembles. Thirty years later, with Piazzolla’s blessing, Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov arranged and transcribed those separate works into a single, extended four-part concerto for violin solo and strings, modeled after the Four Seasons of Vivaldi. The result, Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) came across Tuesday night as a gorgeous showpiece for guest soloist Chee-Yun, the Korean-born concert artists who serves as artist-in-residence at Southern Methodist University, as well as for the orchestra, here collaborating in top form. Baroque borrowings (including quotes from Vivaldi and Pachelbel) and Piazzolla’s hallmark urban energy and seductive insinuations play back and forth throughout, with occasional moments of Paganini-style showmanship for Chee-Yun. Cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi of the faculty for Texas Christian University weighed in with a resonantly expressive rendition of the cello cadenza at the opening of the “Summer” movement.
Swiss composer Frank Martin managed to weather World War II in his homeland; during the closing months of the war and in the immediate aftermath, he created his Petite symphonie concertante, a fascinating blend of baroque and modern sensibilities featuring harpsichord, harp, and piano soloists with double string orchestra. An almost gray 12-tone fugue introduces an otherwise glittering, unfailingly engaging essay, constantly intertwining the three soloists and various elements of the orchestra; as in much of Martin’s music, a sense of utter sophistication entwines with a youthful sense of exuberance.
As conductor McKay pointed out, Martin apparently had in mind the large, loud harpsichords of the mid-20th century here; those instruments have disappeared in the ensuing era of musical authenticity, so that most harpsichords of today are smaller, more subtle instruments such as were available to Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries. Harpsichord soloist Cameron Hoffman here performed on the largest harpsichord I have ever seen—about the size of an eight-foot concert grand piano—which, although Hoffman played beautifully, was not quite the match the other modern instruments on a stage. In this case, some very subtle electronic amplification, of the sort classical guitarists sometimes employ when playing with orchestra, might have been appropriate.
Other than that one tiny complaint, the presentation of this fascinating and unique masterpiece of 20th-century music was unfailingly engaging, with harpist Yumiko Schlaffer and pianist Tsay joining conductor McKay and the orchestra in a work that bounds stylistically—and convincingly—from Bach to Stravinsky.