Dallas — Making programming decisions must be one of the trickiest parts of planning an orchestral season. For each set of concerts, there’s an ideal balance of the familiar and the new, and an ideal level of variety. Is mixing Mozart with Mahler too jarring? Is an all-Beethoven program too much of a good thing?
Last weekend’s Dallas Symphony concerts, under former St. Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson, featured a decidedly quirky programmatic mix on paper, but the net result was delightful. The program was bookended by two of Stravinsky’s early works—the seldom played Fireworks, a five-minute orchestral bonbon, and his ballet The Firebird, the work that catapulted Stravinsky to fame. In the middle was Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” a sort of symphony-meets-piano-concerto hybrid, with piano soloist Orli Shaham. Interestingly, all three of these works were the products of young composers—Stravinsky was 26 when he wrote Fireworks and 28 when he composed The Firebird, while Bernstein was 31 when “The Age of Anxiety” premiered.
Listening to Fireworks, it’s pretty easy to understand why it isn’t programmed more often. The string parts especially are devilishly tricky. But the DSO under Robertson’s baton made quick work, literally, of this flashy little piece. David Buck on flute and Erin Hannigan on oboe provided fine solo turns.
Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” is a complex work, consisting of two parts, each of which is subdivided into three additional parts. Two of those comprise a set of 14 total variations. But no, the title doesn’t refer to your old math worries that all this may have dredged up. Rather, it’s an homage to W.H. Auden’s book-length poem of the same name, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948, the year that Bernstein began his symphony.
Perhaps partly because of this daunting complexity, it’s not programmed particularly often; the DSO hadn’t played it since 2002, according to the program notes, and I can’t remember ever having heard it live. Bernstein uses elements of twelve-tone composition, jazz, and nearly every style in between, including nineteenth-century Romanticism. “The Age of Anxiety” begins with solo clarinets, with especially excellent playing by Principal Gregory Raden. From that simple beginning, the piece expands in complexity, reflecting the progression of Auden’s poem. The DSO attacked this work admirably, making much of Bernstein’s phrasing and dynamic contrasts. Shaham’s playing was assured, too—she integrated skillfully into the orchestra when called for and wowed us in the technical tour de force of the Masque, scored for percussion (plus percussive harps and solo bass) and piano only. George Nickson, on his trial week as Principal Percussion, excelled in the complex xylophone solo. This is an absolutely terrific piece, played brilliantly by the DSO and Orli Shaham.
But many listeners were probably in attendance to hear The Firebird. It was indeed a treat: while the suite from the ballet is performed often, the full ballet, as we heard this weekend, is played much less frequently. And the DSO played it splendidly. Supertitles explaining the action of each section were useful—I wish they’d been provided for the Bernstein, too; an explanation of how each section correlated with Auden’s poem would have been handy. The Firebird is a piece of large proportions: three harps, two contrabassoons, offstage and onstage brass. Under Robertson’s guidance, the orchestra excelled, as did soloists including but not limited to Concertmaster Alex Kerr and Acting Principal Viola Ann Marie Brink, who will be taking a leave of absence from the orchestra at the end of the season for a faculty position at DePaul University. Other exceptional soloists included Principal Flute David Buck, Principal Horn David Cooper, and Principal Bassoon Ted Soluri, with an utterly beautiful Berceuse. This was a marvelous performance by an orchestra that just keeps getting better.