Dallas — No doubt, many audience members came to the Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday night mainly to hear the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). As a large-scale sacred choral work, it is daunting to perform—it requires a large orchestra and chorus, and both must be exceptionally well-trained to execute the subtleties of the piece. So it is not performed as often as it might otherwise be. For me, the Brahms was the most-anticipated piece in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-2017 season. The Bartók Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 was a bit of an afterthought, to me.
Yet in the hands of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and pianist Yuja Wang, the Bartók concerto was sensational. Wang, a 29-year-old Chinese pianist, is as well-known for her outré outfits as her pianistic skills—a Google search for “Yuja Wang clothes” generated many hits including this New Yorker article and a YouTube video titled “Yuja Wang in miniskirt and very high heels.” Her attire of choice Thursday evening was a blue, completely backless halter gown with a thigh-high slit on the right side—the one facing the audience. It was a daring and, judging from the remarks of at least one disgruntled audience member at intermission, controversial choice.
Of course, Wang’s attire might seem downright conservative when compared with costumes chosen by Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. By wearing risqué clothing, Wang makes a point, intentionally or not, about classical music traditions and how those may serve—or fail to serve— the younger audiences that must be cultivated if orchestras and other ensembles are to remain viable.
But back to the Bartók.
This piece, written in the last few months of the composer’s life, was, like the Viola Concerto, left not quite finished, and was partially orchestrated by the composer’s friend Tibor Serly after the composer’s death. It was thus published and premiered posthumously. For those more familiar with Bartók’s knottier early style, this piece may come as a delightful surprise. It is light and, despite a second movement marked Allegro religioso, takes many of its cues from the Hungarian folk music that permeates so much of Bartók’s music, so its overall mood is playful and buoyant.
Yuja Wang and the Dallas Symphony under Jaap van Zweden captured that mood beautifully. This piece is not frequently performed, perhaps in part because it requires not only a highly proficient soloist, but also an exceptional orchestra to successfully navigate the challenging writing for virtually all instruments, and the Dallas Symphony is emphatically that orchestra.
Wang’s approach alternated between contemplative delicacy in the second movement and a big, athletic sound in the dancelike first movement Allegretto and the rollicking final movement, marked Allegro vivace. She is a pianist to be reckoned with, sassy dresses or no.
Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem comprised the (long) second half of the program. This piece runs well over an hour—it is the longest of any of Brahms’s compositions. He chose to use German biblical texts he selected himself rather than the traditional Latin requiem mass text. Although the supertitles with English translations of the text were helpful, I wish that program notes had included an insert with the texts in both German and English, along with sources—Brahms uses Old Testament, New Testament, and even Apocryphal texts in his Requiem, and knowing which is which is enlightening for audiences.
The performance Thursday evening was delicate to the point of being underwhelming in spots—the orchestra seemed to hold back, continually forsaking drama for subtlety. It’s a valid approach, but not necessarily a thrilling one.
Erin Hannigan’s first movement solos were gorgeous, and the chorus was for the most part utterly lovely. The opening of the second movement, Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (“All flesh is as the grass”) was almost spooky in its gentleness, but always astonishingly precise. In the third and sixth movement fugues, van Zweden skillfully brought out each line, emphasizing Brahms’s technical artistry. Baritone soloist Matthias Goerne has a big voice, clear and consistent in timbre through his entire range. He exhibited remarkable control in phrasing, too. (Goerne charmed me utterly by mouthing the chorus parts, as if he wanted to join in singing even more of this remarkable music.) Soprano soloist Lisette Oropesa has a rich, complexly timbred voice that works well for this music.
This program was surely one of the highlights of the Dallas Symphony’s season. Though Bartók and Brahms may seem an odd combination, these two works highlighted the orchestra’s versatility, showcased the chorus, and presented listeners with a fine piano soloist in Yuja Wang. It was a fortuitous evening to be at the Meyerson.