Dallas — Dallas Symphony Orchestra principal harpist Emily Levin took her turn as featured soloist with the orchestra Thursday, providing the high point of a concert performed before a COVID-19-era small audience of masked listeners scattered safely through the expanses of 2,000-seat Meyerson Symphony Center. Gemma New, the orchestra’s New Zealand-born principal guest conductor, led from the podium.
Twentieth-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto (completed ca. 1960, exact date uncertain) provided an ideal showcase for an artist of Levin’s emotional and technical breadth. The work is very much a creation of its time, rich with lyricism and folkloric, quasi-jazzy elements (at times reminding of another masterpiece from the same era, Bernstein’s West Side Story). And Levin’s range was evident throughout, beginning in the opening moments of the first movement, in which an almost darkly percussive introduction gives way to characteristic harp arpeggios before moving on to a touchingly simple folk-like melody. Which in turn launched a whole catalog of effects and colors in both orchestra and harp solo.
A mysterious fugato in the strings sets up the nocturne-like dialogue of the second movement, in which Levin and conductor New achieved the perfect balance of the harp’s limited dynamic range against the huge array of sonic effects Ginastera demands of the orchestra here. And Levin produced the perfect quasi-improvisational effect in the opening cadenza of the Finale, which in turn gives way to an irrepressible energy, at times urbane, at times throbbingly primitive, all aimed relentlessly toward the explosive final exclamation. Throughout the entire concerto, Levin was at ease with every gesture and challenge, while her gorgeous red gown provided a superb visual metaphor for her dramatic performance.
Before the Ginastera Concerto, the Lyric for Strings (1944) of American composer George Walker (1922-2018) provided the curtain-raiser; conductor New obtained an appealingly clean, almost vibrato-free sound from the DSO strings (reduced by two-thirds during the present medical crisis). However, although the work’s gentle, elegiac qualities came across, New inexplicably evaded the occasional dark moments in the work, missing the work’s most profound instances and giving the performance a disappointing blandness.
(Walker’s Lyric, incidentally, begs comparison with the considerably more well-known and more often performed Adagio for Strings from 1936 by Samuel Barber; the Walker is at least equal and, in some ways, arguably superior to Barber’s similar work, with Walker’s kinder ear for string sonorities and more compact structure).
After the Ginastera Concerto, conductor New again disappointed with her reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”), the closing work on the program. Although she had verbally previewed the operatic qualities of the work in her comments at the beginning of the concert, New failed to convincingly bring those ideas to life: the sense of interaction among different “characters” (themes) and of dramatic impetus were largely lacking.
Mozart in the Meyerson can be tricky, given the hall’s design primarily as a showcase for the modern-era orchestra performing works of romantic and 20th-century composers; numerous performers of the past three decades have demonstrated, however, that with proper attentiveness and awareness this room can become a very friendly environment for music of the age of Mozart and his contemporaries.
Misjudgments of balance plagued the performance: the middle and lower strings frequently disappeared or slipped into insignificance between the winds and the first violins, rendering the dramatic counterpoint unnoticeable. And poor choices of tempo and delivery all too often created a frantic rather than energetic aura. Mozart’s genius was as always unmistakable, and the audience responded with an enthusiastic ovation; but the performance was at times more passable than outstanding.