It was an evening of restraint. The Dallas Symphony, under the guest baton of Carlo Rizzi, played magnificently on Thursday evening. However, his tight control never let the music take flight. While this made for a historically correct Beethoven piano concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov's splashy and ultra-romantic Scheherazade was kept on a short leash.
The Meyerson Symphony Center was only partially filled, which was to be expected on a rainy night in Dallas. Add to that the nail-biting Rangers game and it was remarkable that so many DSO fans turned out at all. Maestro Rizzi wore a team hat and co-concertmaster Nathan Olson gave an encouraging, but futile, update before he launched into the difficult violin solo part.
Much was expected of Rizzi. His extensive experience in the opera pit stands in stark contrast to the current crop of symphony-only conductors. You expected a performance of Scheherazade, as operatic as a symphonic piece as can be, to have grand sweep and romantically vocal phrasing.
When turned loose, such as in all of the solo cadenzas which pepper this piece, the principal players of the DSO ably demonstrated that no other orchestra in the country could claim better. Clarinetist Gregory Raden was especially breathtaking with this ability to take a sound from practically inaudible to a dramatic crescendo. Oboist Erin Hannigan and bassoonist Wilfred Roberts covered themselves in glory. Harpist Susan Dederich-Pejovich, flutist Jean Garver (actually the entire flute section), and cellist Christopher Adkins played beautifully. The brasses were also terrific. Principal horn Gregory Hustis plucked the treacherous high notes that start his solo passages right out the ether. All received a much-deserved solo bow.
Many DSO fans have been asking, "who is co-concertmaster Nathan Olson and where did he come from?" Actually, "why have a co-concertmaster at all?" is a better question. Whatever the speculative answers to these questions may be, no one can question his abilities as a violinist after Thursday evening's almost perfect performance.
The violin solos in Scheherazade are notorious. What started out as a violin concerto still retains extended solo sections that test the mettle of anyone who aspires to the concertmaster chair. Olsen certainly met the test under what must have been a high-pressure situation. He was impressive in the dramatic portions but really stood out when he backed off and played with quiet sensitivity. Here, he hushed the hall and commanded the rapt attention of the entire audience.
However, Rizzi kept the performance under too tight a control and glossed over the big goose-bump moments. He was in three when he should been in one and in one when he should have been in three. Admittedly, what he did was a perfectly acceptable and academic reading of Scheherazade. All the big moments were there and thrillingly played. Everyone loved it. Even Rimsky-Korsakov's actual score would bear out Rizzi's approach.
But, for my money, a big romantic piece like this defies efforts to nail it down to such trivial actualities as what is written. Even Mahler's elaborate paragraphs in his scores can't convey such ephemeral details. Much like opera, Scheherazade needs room to emote and to take advantage of what is working at the moment. Tie Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini or even Wagner to what is written and you would have an odd performance indeed. This is why Rizzi's reading was so baffling. He seemed to have left all that opera experience behind him when standing in front of just a symphony orchestra.
The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, gained through the restraint that constricted the Rimsky-Korsakov. Pianist Marcus Pawlik gave an elegant reading, which was matched by a sensitive accompaniment under Rizzi's careful baton. Too often, this concerto is magnified into a virtuoso showpiece typical of a much later era. In this performance, Beethoven's eloquence was first and foremost in the hands of the artists. There was plenty of chance for Pawlik to show off his secure technique in the solo cadenza, but his sensitivity and modesty was every bit as impressive.
The concert started with a rip-roaring reading of Dmitri Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon Overture, This is an absolutely terrific piece that deserves more frequent performances, as does the rest of the composer's neglected output.