Dallas — This weekend’s series of concerts with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra are somewhat longer than usual—clocking in at two and one half hours. These days, a two-hour concert, with an intermission, appears to be the rule. However, this particular concert is well worth the time.
The program is crammed with pieces that you will want to hear: Brahms Tragic Overture, Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto, Dvořák’s tone poem The Water Goblin and Janáček’s splashy Sinfonietta. All this is in the youthful and able hands of guest conductor, Jakub Hrůŝa, from the Czech Republic, and the 19-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, who comes from Polish parents but lives in Canada.
The Brahms was the culprit for the lengthy program. The Chopin concerto doesn’t require an opening act. It would have made an excellent first half of a program by itself. First, Hrůŝa took the Brahms slowly, hoping for stately but resulting in sluggish. Besides, Brahms’ overture doesn’t fit in with the Czech/Polish flavor of the other compositions on the program and the linage of the artists. Further, we would have avoided that tediously long wait while the piano was brought out and the stage reset.
We have had a run of teenaged soloists lately, with mixed results. After hearing a willful and distorted version of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto last week, you could not be blamed for wariness when another prodigy followed with Chopin’s gentle and graceful concerto. But fear not, Lisiecki delivered a subtle and sensitive performance, letting the concerto speak for itself and not editorializing along the way.
Tall and gangly, with a mop of blond hair, Lisiecki was all business without a hint of showbiz. The first indication of this was his quiet and motionless demeanor during the long orchestral exposition that begins the first movement. When it was his turn to play, he still kept his motions to a minimum while impressing musically. You immediately noticed his ability to deliver a singing line, which was connected by technique rather than the overuse of the sustaining pedal, as he captured our attention. It is this singing line, created on a percussion instrument, that is critical to all of Chopin’s music and, time and time again, Lisiecki entranced us with the composer’s unparalleled melodic gift.
However, it was Lisiecki’s ever-serious and minimal approach that cast a shadow on the last movement. Chopin closes with a krakowiak, a Polish folk dance in duple time marked by cross rhythms and a witty liveliness. Some of the concerto’s most difficult passages are in this movement, and Lisiecki played all of the notes with ease, but the happy heart and spunky soul of the krakowiak was missing.
An aside: For some inscrutable reason, many artists these days are hesitant to have fun, or even smile, when playing such music. Composers put folk dances, such as this one, in last movements so that the piece can end with a joyful romp. Playing it molto serioso defeats this purpose.
Dvořák’s Water Goblin is one of his most enchanting tone poems and it follows the rather grisly folk tale closely. It starts off with a daughter abducted by the Water Goblin and ends with a decapitated child. Janáček was greatly influenced by Dvořák, so there is a connection between the two pieces. However, the Sinfonietta is completely different from the gloomy Goblin. It is bright and cheerful, replete with massive brass fanfares, and dedicated to the brave military who fight for human dignity with courage and forthrightness. Despite their significant differences, it is obvious that both are signature pieces for the Czech conductor and he conducted them with a sure podium technique and great attention to the architecture.
He used the music for everything, but it was clear that he didn’t need it. In fact, it was amusing to see his use of a tiny miniature score for the Brahms, placed on a stand that was just above his knees. It was so far away that he had to bend over to turn the pages and there is no way he could have actually seen the notes if needed. Conductors shouldn’t need a score by the time of a performance. However, most bring one onstage to save the day in case something goes terribly wrong.
The Sinfonietta, despite the name’s use of the diminutive, is a huge piece in five movements and lasting about 30 minutes. Janáček started with some spectacular brass fanfares and built his piece around them. Thus, it is written for a very large orchestra and two-dozen extra brass players. Hrůŝa arrayed them across the back of the choral terrace and gave them free reign to blast out in all their glory.
Hrůŝa’s frequently mirrors his hands, but can be expressive with his left hand when needed. His conducting style runs from a highly concentrated beat that rarely exceeds a square foot of space, to large sweeping circles with arms extended to the max. At one point, he leapt into the air with excitement (a bit much, but admittedly effective). While some of his style seemed excessive, that is not the overriding takeaway of his performance. Effusive is probably a better word.
There were a few missteps. For example, in the fugal section of the Brahms, he stopped conducting and put his hands down at his side in a bit of hubristic hot-dogging. While this was impressive, and the section can perk along on its own, it soon became wobbly and he had to leap into action quickly to pull it back together. On occasion, throughout the evening, he appeared to lose energy for a brief moment here and there, and you could hear the music sag in response.
But the positive in his performance far outweighed these few foibles. Most refreshingly, although he let the music frequently play out at what seemed to be full blast, he saved the last notch of volume for those few really-really-really big moments. This came as a surprise at the end of the Janáček. It appeared as if he was at the top volume way too soon, but such was not the case. He had some overdrive remaining and it was a thrilling moment indeed when he let it loose.