Dallas — The Dallas Symphony pared down and spread out this past week. On Friday, the DSO On the Go series took a chamber-sized contingent to Oak Cliff and the highly touted Beethoven Festival opened on Monday with some chamber music at the City Performance Hall. The two concerts were the same in that the full DSO was not appearing. They were quite different, however, and had different goals. On the Go aspires to bring the orchestra out of the Meyerson and into the community. The Beethoven Festival purports to be part of a major series, orchestra concerts and chamber music performances, presented as an equivalent to the subscription series.
Beethoven Festival Concert 1
The Beethoven Festival looked odd from the start. The photo of a lounging model with Beethoven wig—shirt open, displaying a six-pack and pecs—caused all eyes to roll. Then other photos, presenting period costumed models, are equally tacky. Further, the combination of large-scale orchestral concerts (the ninth symphony, for example) and small short chamber concerts is an unusual fit, to say the least. The festival that the Fort Worth Symphony presents before its regular season begin is usually a week of themed concerts with the full orchestra. Besides, Beethoven is hardly is in need of a festival. How about something that could use a festival, such as music by living composers or show our heritage with a concert of music by 19th and early 20th century American composers?
This is not to say that the Beethoven concerts are not interesting. They certainly are and Monday night’s recital was eagerly anticipated, if poorly attended. First of all, an appearance by pianist Alessio Bax is always welcome news. In the festival, he is presented as a collaborative pianist joining some outstanding DSO musicians. In this concert, they played two Beethoven violin sonatas (No. 3 and No. 8) and one piano trio, not by Beethoven, but by Haydn. Joining Bax, co-concertmasters Nathan Olsen and Alexander Kerr each played one sonata and Olsen and cellist Jolyon Pegis played the trio.
Hearing Kerr and Olsen, one right after the other, pointed up the difference between the two leaders. Olsen was brash and daring, willing to take chances to add excitement. Kerr was the more reserved master, giving a thoughtful and determined performance that can only come from living with the sonata for decades. Bax matched the style of each player with ease and in such a smooth manner that you hardly even noticed his adaptations.
The Haydn trio was a delightful addition. It is a wonderful piece and performances are not all that plentiful. In fact, professional-level touring piano trios are in short supply. Piano quartets and quintets are much more favored over the modest forces of just three players. Yet, in Haydn’s skillful hands, the three instruments created as full a sound as any larger group while achieving the clarity that is the hallmark of the trio format. Although the concert was short for a full-priced ticket—barely an hour with no intermission—those few of us who attended experienced some glorious music.
The note turned out to be the City Performance Hall itself. Each of the three pieces required a change in the set up and the performers were never in exactly the same place after the changes. It became obvious that where the performer is on the stage greatly affects the sound in the audience.
This was most true about hearing Olsen and Kerr. Both are fine players with superb violins—Kerr plays on a Stradivarius. In the rare moments when the two of them each have a solo passage in an orchestral concert, or if you can remember them from solo appearances, it seems like Olsen’s violin has the slightly bigger sound of the two. However, on Monday this difference was very noticeable from the balcony, where I was sitting. Kerr’s violin sounded like it was muted, but it definitely was not. Once the sonata started, I wanted to go downstairs to see if things sounded differently but that would have created an unwelcome disturbance. City Performance Hall is still a work in progress acoustically. We can only hope that progress is still being made.
DSO On the Go
Acoustics were definitely not the problem on Friday when the DSO On the Go played a concert in the warmly resonant Oak Cliff Temple Baptist Church. The church was more than half filled with an appreciative audience and it was easy to see that this concert was a very special event for them and for the surrounding community. This series of run-outs is a terrific idea. It and brings the informally clad orchestra directly to the people, as opposed to playing stiff formal concerts for the cognoscenti, which is probably a doomed model anyway. You could not help but wonder how many in the enthusiastic audience also attend concerts at the Meyerson. Not that it matters, of course; bringing the orchestra directly to the community is a laudable end into itself. However, you hope for the added benefit in future tickets sales by introducing the neophyte to the glories of orchestral music. Once converted, most stay for life.
The chamber-sized orchestra was oddly arrayed on different levels in the front of the church. Nevertheless, the balance was excellent and the sound filled, but never overwhelmed, the sanctuary. The fact that the church is designed as a large box, with very high ceilings and hard-surfaced walls, brought the sound to life without the distracting echo that such cavernous spaces can often create.
Rei Hotoda conducted the concert. She was the DSO assistant conductor a couple of seasons back and is also a concert pianist. An interesting sidelight is that her husband is also a conductor. He is the Music Director of the Clinton Symphony in Iowa. This season, the couple will perform Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto together (she on the piano and he on the podium—a whole new take on “he said/she said”). Hotoda did an acceptable job conducting a varied program of masterpieces and pleased everyone in attendance.
It was a good program for the occasion. Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (technically called his Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25) was written in 1917, when the composer was a student, and finished on Sept. 10 of that year. He wanted to imitate the style of Haydn as a compositional study in form and harmony, although he was not slavish in his realization. There was a lot of anticipation about hearing Mozart’s Horn Concerto, without new (and very young) Principal Horn David Cooper doing then honors. The program closed with Mendelssohn’s tuneful and ever-popular Italian Symphony.
You can safely assume that Hotoda did not get a lot of rehearsal time, so she wisely, at every turn, took the safest road she could. Within that self-imposed limitation, she still managed to make some music and her performance occasionally rose to inspired levels.
There were some problems, though, which were the same for both symphonies. She was at her best in the Mozart. While her podium presence is controlled and exact, she has the habit of giving her downbeats as explosions going up in the air. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it means that the actual moment of the down (er…up) beat is open to speculation. A traditional down-downbeat shows to the players an exact and unique moment in time—shown by a tick or ictus with the baton—something her sweeping upward gesture lacked.
Thus, it was hard for her to get the Prokofiev off the ground at the beginning. The opening tempo felt slow and leaden instead of light on its classical feet. In addition, while individual phrases were lovingly shaped, entire movement themselves lacked an over arching shape and seemed to be a collection of nicely crafter phrases, stuck together. The more you listened, and watched her conduct, the overriding impression was that she was reacting and not in charge. Perhaps this was a result of being over-cautious and letting the orchestra play with as little interference as possible. If so, it probably was the correct decision. Trying to do subtle tempo changes without adequate rehearsal invites disaster.
This brings us to the Mozart and the estimable Mr. Cooper. Ever since the blond and boyish horn player came on the scene, as part of the Fort Worth Symphony, there has been a spotlight shinning on him. He came to the Dallas Symphony last season as third horn and, in record time, became the principal of the section. When Gregory Hustis, who had held the chair since 1976, retired, a decision had to be made; Cooper was actively being recruited by other orchestras, including the London Philharmonic and the choice facing the DSO was to give him the chair or lose him to elsewhere. Fortunately for us, they did and he stayed.
In light of these events, there must have been a lot of pressure on Cooper for that concert in Oak Cliff last week. He has a lot to prove, to the audience for sure, but to the other players as well. However, my bet is that none of this even crossed him mind. He had the chance to play one of his favorite concerti with the orchestra and all the rest of the situation didn’t matter to him at all.
As the performance proceeded, we all listened in an increasing state of wonder. As a member of the orchestra said to me afterwards, “He is crazy good.” By the end of the first movement, you knew that you were hearing something special. By the end of the concerto, you knew for sure that you had heard something exceptional. Cooper nonchalantly delivered the best performance of the concerto in memory—and those include performances by some of the greatest players alive.
It wasn’t that it was technically perfect, even though it was. It wasn’t that it was musical, and stylistically correct, even though it was. It wasn’t just his spinning, perfectly in tune and alive sound, because that was there as well. It wasn’t the nice touches such as lip trills and the security that allowed you to sit back and not worry about the horn cracking somewhere, because that was true as well. What made it special was his joy in playing it for us. His big grin during the tutti passages said it all. Afterwards, he modestly commented (without modesty ever crossing his mind) “Gee, that really went well.”
You think? Yes, David, it did.
In fact, a more casually perfect performance is hard to imagine. Yet, you know he could consistently produce such performances, like rabbits out of a magician’s hat. Probably, it will have to be topped by Cooper himself, at a later date, when he has lived with the piece for a decade or so. Let’s just hope that he never loses that positive and youthful glow that surrounds him—and of which he is so obviously unaware.