Dallas — This weekend Dallas Symphony Orchestra presents a conductor-friendly program, allowing Slovakia-born conductor Juraj Valčuha to make a big splash in his Dallas debut. Huge showpieces dominate, opening with Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan and ending with the unusual merger of two of Respighi’s spectacularly colorful pieces, Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, played without a pause. In between, the brilliant American violinist Stefan Jackiw gives a very personal account of Mendelssohn’s well-known Violin Concerto.
On Thursday evening, both the orchestra and the Meyerson Symphony Center itself sounded magnificent. The hall rang to the rafters from the start, and the end of the final notes of the second Respighi piece were almost deafening as organist Bradley Hunter Welch maximized the sonic abilities of the Lay Family Organ, and because of the brass displayed in the balconies above the stage. They should have been positioned offstage or in the back of the hall. As they were, they were impossible to differentiate from the general orchestral mayhem. Also, a different position would have made them quieter to minimize Respighi’s 1924 burglary of the distinguishing bitonal, sparkly triads in the Pines of Rome directly from Richard Strauss’ 1911 opera, Der Rosenkavalier.
Solos by the principal players were amazing all evening. I typically hesitate to mention players individually because might leave out someone important, but special mention has to go to the usual suspects. No other clarinetist, to my knowledge, can match Gregory Raden when it comes to gorgeous, super-soft playing. His softest notes sound more like they are imagined rather than played. Erin Hannigan produces a world-class oboe sound and David Cooper (welcome home) is a horn player of remarkable abilities. David Matthews delivered some beautiful English horn playing as did bass clarinetist Andrew Sandwick. Concertmaster Alexander Kerr is always marvelous. Best yet, the orchestra’s intonation was perfect, right from the opening oboe-match tuning.
The statuesque Valčuha is an impressive-looking conductor on the podium. He appears younger than his actual age (mid-40s) and has fantastic conductor hair. He also has impeccable baton technique, keeping most of his motions restricted to a small frame in front of his body. He saved the big gestures for the appropriate moments but gave some of the biggest moments a calm outstretch of his arms. Further, he knows the scores. What he lacks is a sense of architecture and how to build an effective tier of dynamics.
Don Juan started out with lots of oomph and virtuosic playing. However, Valčuha’s reading didn’t live up to the promise he made in the opening licks.
The two Respighi tone poems are both welcome on the concert stage. The composer’s mastery of orchestration and his unique Italianate take of French Impressionism with a German accent creates thrilling orchestral colors no matter what the volume level at he moment. However, playing both of them together was an overdose that revealed the usually unnoticed paucity of his luxuriously realized ideas. Thankfully, we were spared the addition of Respighi’s third tone poem in this trilogy, Roman Festivals.
The recorded nightingale twittering, in the crepuscular splendors of the third movement, is always an attractive addition and its surprise appearance is unique to this work. However, on Thursday evening it was played too loudly over the hall’s sound system. We are supposed to barely hear it in the distance to create the composer’s intended ambiance. This nightingale sounded like it could sing Brünnhilde.
An aside: The score requests that the custom recorded bird song be played on a Brunswick Panatrope record player. Supposedly, the composer recorded it at the American Academy in Rome, situated on Janiculum hill, which is the name of the movement. These days it is often a copy of that recording via CD or mp3. However, in this era of historically accurate performances, wouldn’t it be terrific to use the composer’s intended player visible on the stage? They’re easily available online.
Jackiw is one of the top violinists on the stage these days. He is rightfully lauded for his performances in chamber music as well as concerti performances around the world. His unique take on Mendelssohn’s tuneful violin concerto, agree or not, gave us some unique phrasing as well as creative fingering and bow effects. The second movement was the highlight of the concert. However, he distorted tempi in the first and last movements. Slower sections skulked around, and the presto-plenty passages propelled precipitously forward, leaving Valčuha and the orchestra in the musical dust. True, this made the reading very exciting and the audience was in a state of ecstatic endearment at the thrilling conclusion, but Mendelssohn’s concerto is, at its heart, not a virtuoso piece. Jackiw tried to make it one, purely by extravagantly exaggerating the fast tempi, especially in the last movement. Mendelssohn’s concerto is all about elegance, such as Jackiw so elegantly expressed in the middle movement.