Dallas — Once upon a time, it was often bandied about that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra wasn’t much good at French music. But it turns out, with the right conductor, they play French music just fine.
On the weekend of Nov. 8-10, the Texas Instruments Classical Series concerts featured new Principal Guest Conductor Gemma New in a transfixing program of favorites by Debussy, a world premiere by Steven Mackey and a local premiere by Salina Fisher. The concert series was a highlight of Dallas’ first Women in Classical Music Symposium, which also featured the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors, a variety of panels, and a keynote by singer Dawn Upshaw.
Beginning with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune demonstrated New Zealand-born New’s subtle touch with the orchestra, and allowed Principal Flute David Buck, with his golden, glimmering sound, Principal Oboe Erin Hannigan, and horns David Heyde and Joe Assi to shine.
But it was in the orchestra’s world premiere of Mackey’s timpani concerto A Different Drummer that the orchestra truly lit up. The soloist was the DSO’s own Principal Timpani Brian Jones. The concerto, organized as an introduction and five “excursions,” begins gently, with Jones playing a single champagne flute, glass harmonica style, with harmonics in the strings and Theremin-like effects in the harp adding to the ethereal effect. Soon, Jones turned to the timpani. The genius of the opening to this concerto is that rather than making the timpani sound more like a melodic instrument, Mackey makes everyone else sound more like percussion. Co-concertmaster Nathan Olson used a violin with its lowest string tuned down a full octave, scordatura, to achieve a percussive pitchlessness, and flutes clacked their keys and strings used other extended techniques, as well.
Jones played brilliantly but given the inherent limits of the timpani as a solo instrument, Mackey made the wise decision to give the rest of the orchestra lots to do. There was never a dull moment in the piece, without it ever seeming over-orchestrated or excessively busy. It’s a fun roller-coaster ride of a piece, and all we can do is hang on. As a conductor, Gemma New gave that greatest of gifts to her musicians: a downbeat so clear she could have been a college drum major. Mackey’s concerto has frequent meter changes, and New catalogued each of them with precision and grace. Just 32 years old, New is already proving to be a real presence on the podium, and the DSO is lucky to have her.
The other premiere on the program was Salina Fisher’s Rainphase. It is an homage to Fisher’s native Wellington, New Zealand. This piece, while certainly listenable, seemed to be mainly an experiment in novelty techniques: bowed percussion, a wind machine, lots of raindrop-like pizzicato in the two harps, and col legno (striking the strings with the stick of the bow) and glissando in strings all found their place here.
Wrapping up the program was Debussy’s beloved La Mer. This was an outstanding performance by an orchestra at the top of its game. David Matthews’ English horn playing was perfection, the strings delighted with delicate playing that never lost its precision, and despite a few pitch issues in winds, it was some of the tightest playing of French Impressionist music I’ve ever heard from this orchestra.
I’m looking forward to the next time Gemma New graces the Meyerson’s podium. She is a force.