Dallas — Ah, New Year’s Eve — a time when even normally conservative-acting people go a little crazy (Anderson Cooper did shots on television!). Some just stay home. An elegant yet celebratory alternative is the concert presented by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
As the crowd arrived, it was easily observable that the dress was more evening wear than for a usual concert. As usual, it was the ladies that led the way with some stunning gowns. While some men were in tuxedos, most were in suits or sport coats. It was also a different crowd than those at the subscription concerts. Special events like this usually attract new audiences and the hope is that they will return for more symphonic splendor in the future. How well this supposition works is a subject worthy of further study.
The program for the concert featured an array of pieces by waltz king Johann Strauss, Jr., which are de rigueur for New Year’s Eve affairs. We heard a few polkas and some of the most well-known waltzes, such as the Emperor Waltz and ended with his most famous work — the Blue Danube Waltz. The program opened with a warhorse, Ferdinand Hérold’s Overture to his 1831 opera, Zampa. Also in this category was the Light Cavalry Overture to Franz von Suppé's operetta of the same name. In the masterpiece category, we heard Brahms’ Variations of a Theme by Joseph Haydn. Originally written for two pianos, the 18-minute orchestral version is much more frequently heard.
The conductor was New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New. In addition to her appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, her website lists the following: Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, Resident Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
She is fine conductor with good baton technique. She is still trying to figure out what to do with her left hand, which she holds awkwardly but is called in for expressive purposes and only occasionally mirrors. She was at her best with the Brahms and it proved to be was the highlight of the concert. Another high point was Strauss’ charming Pizzicato Polka. This piece is deceptively difficult to play because a pizzicato (a plucked string) is such a specific point in time. Getting an entire string section to play them precisely at the same moment is more difficult than any other entrances in orchestral music. This is the job of the conductor and New pulled it off with near perfection. Recent performances elsewhere have sounded more like BBs tossed on a sheet of metal than the section playing the note at the same time.
The waltzes felt sluggish and would have been impossible to use for the dance. Further, the exact form of these waltzes was difficult to discern. They are quite formulaic, containing a series of promenades that separate the different waltzes, each section requires a specific tempo. It was obvious that no one was actually dancing the Viennese waltz at the time but taking them slower than required loses all of their charm.
There certainly wasn’t any waltzing at the after-party. For some who bought the extra ticket, there was a spread of food, including a mashed potato bar served in extra-large martini glasses — a real treat. There was also some skewers of chicken and waffles. For everyone else, there was an open bar and a dance band. While the switch of musical worlds, from the concert hall to the very loud dance band, is always a bit of a shock, it appeared to attract more dancers than usual. Everyone seemed to be having an appropriately celebratory evening.