Dallas — With the exception of the crowd-favorite Boléro of Maurice Ravel, this weekend’s Dallas Symphony program favors subtlety.
The first half of the program is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with French pianist Hélène Grimaud. This is Beethoven exploring unconventionality—the first movement, with its unconventional chord progressions, and the second movement, with its dramatic pauses and interplay between the strings and the soloist, must have seemed very strange to audiences during Beethoven’s lifetime. (The third movement, a much more traditional rondo, acts as a sort of corrective to the first two movements.)
Over 200 years after its composition, though, this concerto no longer sounds as peculiar to our ears. But Grimaud and guest conductor Lionel Bringuier, through somewhat quirky interpretive choices, allowed us to hear the piece anew. Bringuier maximized the native theatricality of the second movement, to a point that was almost mannered, and took the final movement at quite a rousing clip—I was a little concerned that strings wouldn’t be able to keep up, but keep up they did. Grimaud’s playing in the first movement was especially sensitive, allowing us to focus on the music, and, yes, its oddity, rather than on her playing. The DSO responded with a fine awareness of balance, never overwhelming her.
Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse, played without a pause, verged on too much of a good thing. Valses nobles et sentimentales is a set of eight waltzes, with a total performed length of about 18 minutes. So, some of the waltzes present almost as fragments, whiplashing from one musical idea to the next, and in this regard, following with the longer-form La Valse allowed listeners to refocus. Still, when followed by Boléro, this is 45 minutes of musical impressionism, and the audience was a bit restless during La Valse, although Bringuier coaxed excellent playing out of the orchestra.
The benefit to all this Ravel, though, is that is allows us as listeners to hear the evolution of his orchestration. Ravel was singularly creative at using instruments in unexpected ways and surprising timbral combinations. Nowhere is this most evident in what is by far his most famous piece, Boléro. Like La valse, it was originally written as a ballet. Ravel was fond of restyling dances—not only the waltzes and bolero we see here, but also forms such as the minuet and the pavane and even the dance suite, as seen in Le tombeau de Couperin.
Boléro, of course, is famous because of its insistent, endlessly repetitive snare drum solo (delivered with metronomic precision by percussionist Daniel Florio) and its almost equally repetitive melodic theme, which is passed among soloists and sections from the expected flute (David Buck, with a deliciously warm tone), clarinet, bassoon, and oboe to less conventional solo instruments, including tenor saxophone (Tim Roberts, producing a gorgeous, buttery sound), E-flat clarinet, and soprano saxophone. While Boléro can be off-putting in its repetitiveness—it inevitably gives me an earworm for days—when played well, as it was Thursday night, listeners also have an opportunity to recognize Ravel’s ability to create innovative colors and timbres.