Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Orchestra dished up a delightful and varied program for its first Texas Instruments Classical Series program of 2016. Conductor Long Yu was expressive yet clear, and had more success extracting the DSO’s best playing than many guest conductors of late.
While most of the program was typically conservative, the opening sally of the evening was Qigang Chen’s evocative Wu Xing (The Five Elements). Chen, a Chinese-born French citizen who was Oliver Messiaen’s final student, composed each of the piece’s movements to correspond to one of the elements in the Chinese system: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. This conceptually fascinating piece is well worth additional hearings.
Although the string writing occasionally falls into the trap of so much contemporary music, with excess focus on all the weird sounds string players can make, sometimes the special techniques work brilliantly—col legno, or playing with the stick of the bow, in the wood movement, for example. Percussion shone, as did Principal Viola Ellen Rose in a solo evoking Earth. The piece proved polarizing—while some listeners gushed, one audience member was overheard to opine that she “didn’t like that first thing much.” As frustrating as it is to some frequent concertgoers that the DSO uses its formidable talents to perform warhorse after warhorse, those warhorses fill more seats than does new music. The key seems to be in finding a balance between presenting a few newer works alongside a majority of familiar favorites.
Sure enough, the remainder of the program was conventional: Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, though, never gets old, especially when played as expertly as it was Saturday evening. Principal Trumpet Ryan Anthony sparkled in the well-known “Promenade” sections, contrasts were dramatic and brilliant, and the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” was thrilling: big and loud, without losing technical precision and musicality.
It was easy to imagine that Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto could only be anticlimactic after the booming percussion and wide-open brass of the Mussorgsky. And yet Kirill Gerstein’s muscular, physical performance was a technical marvel and a musical delight. Gerstein has made his name with the music of the “big Russians,” Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev in particular. It’s unsurprising that his approach would work especially well for these composers. As Gerstein plays, he leans in to the keyboard shoulders first, as if to press the piano into compliance. His sound is thus weighty without being pressured or forced; in fact, it is a wonder of textures and colors —ideally suited to the complexity of the Russian masters. He’s also able to achieve delicacy when it’s required, though, as in the lyrical second movement of the Rachmaninoff, marked Intermezzo: Adagio. Gerstein is much in demand as a soloist and chamber music performer, but here’s hoping that he will grace the Metroplex with his playing again soon.
For the Dallas Symphony, this was pretty nearly an ideal program. Two crowd-pleasing pieces, performed expertly, and 11 minutes of something new and marvelous.