Dallas — Friday’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra was a highly anticipated event for three reasons. The first was the local premiere of Aureole, a 2013 fireball of a piece by composer Augusta Read Thomas. The second reason was the appearance of Beatrice Rana, who won the Silver award at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The final reason was the first 2019-2020 appearance of Fabio Luisi in his new role as Music Director Designate of the DSO.
The Meyerson Symphony Center conspicuously crackled with expectation before the music started, but it was the electrifying seven-and-a-half minutes of Aureole that really set things on fire. First of all, kudos must go to Luisi for programming a relatively new work by an American composer, not to mention a woman composer. Let’s hope that this portends things to come.
Aureole is a minimalist piece at its heart, and not much like the peaceful and new-age image that title implies. Instead, it a series of bold and contrasting, but oddly similar, roughshod musical events strung together without much in the way connecting passages. The mood was set right from the start with a splashy brass fanfare punctuated by clanking commentary from the percussion section — bestowed with a booming drum-filled cadenza. This wake-up-and-pay-attention opening gave way to a jerky scherzo-ish section, built on discrete packets of musical motifs.
These were started by the strings but quickly spread throughout the orchestra. A much-welcomed slow section appeared, relying on long sustained notes that were loudly interrupted by short musical interpolations; but the energy of the opening soon returned.
In short, Aureole is a deliciously exciting piece that is as close to a perfect curtain-raiser bonbon as you can find. The American composer and recent compositional date are a most welcome lagniappe.
Unfortunately, the playing in Aureole was anything but precise, casting a fog over such a rhythmic piece. Sloppy entrances, brass note splats, and intonation nightmares abounded. It was probably the result of a combination of things: an unfamiliar conductor at the helm, the always-too-limited rehearsal time, and an out-of-shape orchestra after the long summer break.
Luisi chose to exaggerate Thomas’ extravaganza throughout the performance with accuracy, which is a curious sacrifice to effect. Dynamics were bumped up, contrasts sharpened, and already loud brass passages were turned into a blare. Luisi raised the presence of the already bloated and noisy percussion writing to hyperbolic levels. The effect of all of this conductorial tinkering was to take a piece that was already a barnburner, and let it explode. The audience, the most important judge of new music, weighed in with a nearly unanimous “yes” vote as demonstrated by a spontaneous ovation.
On the not-so-electrifying side of the ledger was Rana’s very 21st century rendition of Beethoven’s dignified concerto, tellingly surnamed the “Emperor.” In Rana’s technically perfect hands, dynamic contrasts were exaggerated. Further, she frequently overused the pedal, delivering some musical episodes that yearn for clarity to blur levels. In the loud passages, she often delivered Bartók-like levels that pushed the instrument beyond its sonic capabilities to respond. Some tempi were noticeably altered, and she brought little new to repeated passages.
On the other hand, Luisi had a much more historically accurate and modest concept of the piece. This caused some conflict of interpretations and an occasional disagreement about the location of the downbeat.
History reports that Beethoven himself was known as a monster pianist who attacked the piano like it was a wild beast in need of conquering and frequently dived into improvisational realms, even in previously published pieces. Perhaps Rana has it right — but it sure was different.
The program ended with a concert rarity: Richard Strauss’ huge An Alpine Symphony. It is huge in concept, with a definite program including a terrifying thunderstorm, and written in one sizable and uninterrupted movement. It is also huge in compositional execution, with a gigantic orchestration that includes instruments that rarely appear in scores. Two reasons for its lack of performances is that it is a long sit and it is expensive to produce with all the extra players required. But all of this is merely a trifle in light of such magnificent music, the product of the over-ripe end of late romanticism.
This piece is perfect for Luisi. His many years in the opera pit gives him a sense of the timing in dramatic music. His ability to manage such large forces with layered dynamics was immediately evident. This was a performance to be remembered. There are still a few performances remaining and it is highly recommended that you catch one of them. Who knows with the opportunity will come our way again?