Dallas — The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is consistently lauded as one of the best concert halls in the world. It is a visual marvel and an acoustic joy. Its architect, I.M. Pei, died yesterday at age 102. There was no better way to honor him in Dallas than with last night’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.
The program leaned more toward audience favorites than have other recent programs. The first half of the concert featured Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major. The soloist, 25-year-old Canadian Blake Pouliot, was a substitute for the ailing Renaud Capuçon. Pouliot is certainly a violinist to watch; he has recently had debuts with several major orchestras, with good reason. He is technically proficient, though certainly not perfect (some of his octaves were not always spot on, for one thing) and musically sure-footed—though, again, some of his attacks were a bit hacky and a few passages that called for clearer articulations were too legato. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise dynamic and sometimes even electrifying performance. Principal Oboe Erin Hannigan performed the famous solo in the Adagio brilliantly, but more as a member of the orchestra than as the de facto second soloist, leaving the focus on Pouliot.
Pouliot has a distinctive stage presence, for sure, with a rock-star vibe reminiscent of a young Nigel Kennedy. He has eschewed traditional concert garb altogether. That’s generally a good thing—I’m all for modernization of concert attire—but his loud print pants Thursday night looked as if someone had thrown up a bag of Jolly Ranchers in his lap. They and his dangly black scarf were a distraction rather than an addition to the performance. When he spoke to introduce his encore, his own arrangement of “The Last Rose of Summer,” all the posturing vanished, and he became a disarming, charming young man.
The main attraction for many audience members was likely Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. It tells the story of a musician who becomes obsessed with his dream woman, goes to a party, takes a nice walk in the country, then (plot twist!) has drug-addled hallucinations of his own execution, and attends a witches’ sabbath. It’s a huge piece, with four tympani players, in this performance four harps, and a full roster of strings, winds, brass, and percussion. It gets loud, in other words.
This was a fine performance, but some ensemble untidiness and balance issues in key moments demonstrated that the DSO was probably better off with Fabio Luisi as the new Music Director than they would have been with Pablo Heras-Casado (who was reportedly considered for the job). This piece always evokes the same series of emotions in me as a listener: being charmed by Berlioz’s melodies, entranced by the many gorgeous solos, and curious as to why Harriet Smithson ever thought marrying Berlioz was a good idea. (If you don’t know the story, here's a pretty good synopsis. Pro tip: a relationship with someone who calls you his Desdemona, his Ophelia, his Juliet—that’s not going to end well.)
But as to the solos: the English horn is a seriously underrated instrument. It’s the viola of the double reed family (with oboe, bassoon, and contrabassoon being the violin, cello, and double bass, respectively). And like its stringed cousin, it seldom gets much respect, with precious little solo repertoire and lots of folks who don’t even know what it is. (Not helping: its name. It’s neither English nor a horn.) In his Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz wrote a fantastic solo indeed for the instrument, and David Matthews absolutely nailed it Thursday night, with creamy tone and thoughtful phrasing. Other famous and well-performed solos included those for E-flat clarinet, played by Paul Garner, and bassoon, by Ted Soluri…and those creepy bells, by Dan Florio. The orchestra as a whole has sounded better, but these concerts are still well worth attending, whether or not Blake Pouliot wears those crazy pants.