Dallas — Two grandly opulent symphonic works produced a high-adrenalin evening for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Meyerson Symphony Center Thursday night; the concert, the first of three scheduled for this weekend (there is no Friday night performance), successfully showed off not only Ukrainian guest conductor Kirill Karabits and guest organist Cameron Carpenter, but the orchestra itself, playing in top form.
But the real star of the evening was the Lay Family Organ, the mammoth instrument that visually dominates the hall, here taking a central role — albeit very differently for both works — in the two complex symphonic masterpieces that made up the night’s agenda.
First up, organist Carpenter joined conductor Karabits and the orchestra for early-20-century Belgian composer Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante of 1927. Originally composed for the grand in-house organ for Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia (back in the days when department stores did that sort of thing), the Symphonie Concertante creates unfailing fascination in a hybrid (as the title indicates) of symphony and concerto. Rich with a harmonic language and gestures similar to Debussy’s monumental tone poem La mer, the work hasn’t appeared on a Dallas Symphony concert in over twenty years; the logistical demand of orchestral resources, a great organ, and a remarkable organ virtuoso make it something of a concert rarity.
After a slightly rough start in the busy contrapuntal opening passage, conductor Karabits, organist Carpenter, and the orchestra slipped easily into the work’s characteristic joyful optimism and occasional moments of gorgeous ecstasy. Balance was by no means perfect at every instant in this first of four movements; one might assume that the organ soloist and guest conductor (both visitors to the scene) may have been feeling their way into the sonic aspects of the room, which can shift even after careful rehearsal, with the added presence of an audience and hundreds of warm bodies affecting the acoustic qualities of the room.
However, the sprightly second “Divertimento” movement successfully and completely showed off organist Cameron’s complete command of the colors and possibilities of the mighty Lay Family Organ. This movement floats, after its lively opening, into a quasi-religious mode for a modal chorale before slipping into a raucous galop.
More reminders of Debussy opened the third movement with a flute obligato (shades of Afternoon of a Faun), beautifully performed by the orchestra’s principal flutist David Buck, whose bright, brilliant, and unique tone goes straight to the listener’s heart in a passage like this, after wich conductor Karabits carefully molded the slowly unwinding crescendo of this initially dreamlike movement. The closing Toccata, reminiscent of the large solo organ works of Vierne and Widor, predictably inspired a roaring ovation from the audience, which was obviously falling in love with organist Carpenter.
Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony filled up the second half. This composer’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies of course rank among the most beloved works in the orchestral repertoire; Tchaikovsky chose, however, not to give this symphony a number, to place it outside the canon of his six numbered symphonies, and (unlike those other three somewhat more famous works) to allow performers and listeners a precise guide to the non-musical elements he depicts here. The monumental length (just under an hour) and large orchestra (including five horns and two generously utilized harps) evoke the symphonic scale of the composer’s Austrian contemporaries Bruckner and Mahler; the musical vocabulary, however, is unmistakably Tchaikovsky’s.
All of this provides a hefty, potentially rewarding challenge for conductor and orchestra, a task Karabits and the Dallas Symphony met impressively. Karabits commanded the fine points of tempo and timing throughout the hefty length of the score; every section of the orchestra was in top form, with the string section in particular producing a fine synthesis of precision and lucid timbre. The opening movement, with its pessimistic, down-drifting tunes (opposite the sunny cheerfulness of the preceding Jongen work) gave way to the delicacies of the second movement; here, Karabits saved the light second theme of the movement from syrupiness with an intense energy.
(The story, based on British romantic poet Byron’s extended poem Manfred, relates the adventures of a world-weary romantic hero; the second movement depicts a scene in which ‘’The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow created by a waterfall.” No, I’m not kidding.)
The organ loft had remained mysteriously lit throughout the first 50 minutes of the work, in spite of the absence of the soloist, right through the greater part of the fourth movement, in which Manfred descends into a wild, supernatural orgy (complete with a furious fugue and a tambourine part). Spoiler alert: organ soloist Carpenter returned for the final coda, in which an organ solo signals Manfred’s final redemption. A well-deserved roaring ovation for all involved followed.