Dallas — Pianist Kenny Broberg, winner of the 2016 Dallas International Piano Competition and a competitor in the upcoming Van Cliburn International Competition, provided the indisputable high point of Tuesday night’s “Concert Variations” from the Dallas Chamber Symphony at Dallas City Performance Hall.
Broberg’s c.v. radiates middle America: born in Minnesota, he studied in the past at the University of Houston and currently at Park University in Missouri—albeit with past Ciburn gold medalist Stanislav Ioudenitch.
His performance of Liszt’s roof-rattling Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) was, however, anything but provincial. Granted, this is a piece that’s sometimes hard to take seriously—simply because of its nonstop series of virtuosic showcase elements, almost bordering on the comical. But Broberg presented a commandingly cosmopolitan presence, evoking the aura of the nineteenth-century virtuoso superstar by and for whom this piece was written. In short, he took every note seriously, and with perfect sense of style, panache, and appropriate ego, from the angelic sunbursts to the thunderbolts to the almost carnivalesque serious of glissandos. Even on a slightly dull Yamaha grand, Broberg coaxed a brilliant array of colors and gradations of tone; once he placed his fingers on the keyboard, he personified the tradition that mingles the profound elements of classical music with the show-biz aspect Liszt and his disciples cultivated.
Totentanz is, essentially, a series of variations on the Dies Irae chant of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead; the concert had opened with another series of variations, 20th-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes. This work was, in many ways, ideal for this small orchestra, with its entourage of twenty-one strings plus full complement of winds; all the principals get a shot in the spotlight in the journey of this lilting Latin melody, beginning with the dreamy duo for harp and cello with which the work opens. The wind soloists were, indeed, uniformly excellent; among the strings, concertmaster Kazuhira Takagi presented a striking performance of his solo in the lively eighth variation. And, with its pungent colors and sense of intimacy and individualism, the piece worked well in the small auditorium. A stronger sense of forward momentum from conductor Richard McKay, the orchestra’s artistic director, would, however, have further enhanced the performance.
The final work on the program, was, unfortunately, a miscalculation. Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is a piece for large, full orchestra—a concept brought home in the opening phrase, in which the relentless heartbeat of the tympani simply overshadowed the rest of the orchestra. While wind parts were uniformly more than adequate, the smaller string section—about a third the size of that of a standard symphony orchestra—constantly lacked the resonance and presence, not to mention the range of volume, tone and color, needed for this monument of high romanticism. Even with a fairly steady sense of momentum and some occasional fine moments, one couldn’t help miss the full color range this work demands. Given the virtually infinite list of masterpieces for smaller orchestras, from the early 18th century to the early 21st, it’s puzzling that McKay should choose to dip into the canon of works that simply don’t fit this particular ensemble.