Dallas — This weekend’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concerts are marketed as romantic Valentine’s weekend date night choices: there was even special Valentine’s-themed lighting in the Meyerson lobby. And I’m all for whatever fills the seats. Under the baton of former Assistant Conductor Ruth Reinhardt, the orchestra ended the program with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. With its lush, hummable melodies, this is for sure a Valentine’s-suitable piece, as long as you don’t see the play that inspired it as aspirational.
There were a few ensemble issues in the Tchaikovsky, but for the most part, it was just as it should have been, rich and a bit trite, but still welcome: the musical equivalent of a box of Godiva chocolates and a dozen red roses. The program opened with another welcome chestnut, Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride. The initial downbeat was not quite together, worryingly, but then ensemble settled in nicely.
These well-known pieces may have been appealing to many listeners, but the real Valentine’s gifts on the program were Martinů’s Symphony No. 4, performed for the first time by the DSO, and Jerod Tate’s new bassoon concerto, Ghost of the White Deer, with DSO Principal Bassoon Ted Soluri as soloist.
The symphony was a delight — Bohuslav Martinů, a Czech composer of the first half of the 20th century, is not as well-known as he should be. While a handful of chamber pieces are on regular recital program rotation, you probably haven’t heard many performances of any of his six symphonies, his four violin concertos, or any of myriad other works— how about his Fantasia for Theremin, oboe, string quartet, and piano? No? Doesn’t ring a bell? It’s a shame, because Martinu’s work is worth a listen.
Reinhardt and the DSO did Martinů proud Thursday night. The Symphony No. 4 is festive, at times leaning toward the martial. Reinhardt preserved the symphony’s cheery character, and the orchestra delivered. The fourth movement, marked poco allegro, is especially technically challenging, but the orchestra seemed unbothered, handling tricky passages with aplomb.
I feel more ambivalent about the world premiere of Tate’s bassoon concerto. Principal Bassoonist Ted Soluri absolutely rocked it Thursday. He has a rich, round tone in lyrical moments, and is extraordinarily nimble in quick passagework. Tate is a Native American composer who uses influences from his Chickasaw heritage as inspiration for his work. He has intriguing ideas: the concerto had much of interest, with some distinctly non-European sounds, lively percussion, including a range of Native drums, and inspiration drawn from a Chickasaw folktale of lost love. These ethnomusicological elements are just the kind of thing that can attract new, young audiences.
However, the orchestration is extraordinarily thick for a concerto, and Soluri was frequently well-nigh inaudible. A single bassoon doesn’t have a chance pitted against a large orchestra with lots of percussion, playing fortissimo. It’s been suggested that this is the current trend when composing concertos; if so, it’s not a positive one. While it might make sense to allow the soloist to blend into the orchestra in a few unison passages, asking him to play difficult, technical lines that nearly disappear through dense orchestration and loud dynamics seems a bit disrespectful of the soloist, and even of the audience: I wanted to hear Soluri’s marvelous playing more than I was able to.