Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Orchestra opened its 2020 season on Thursday evening but it was very different from previous such occasions. Gone was the sweep of designer gowns and the display of men trapped in an old and now-ill-fitting tux. The small audience was restricted to just a few, who were forlornly scattered in the cavernous Meyerson Symphony Center. It looked like the attendance you might expect at a concert with an announced program of the complete works of Anton Webern.
This COVID-19 era completely shut down live performances starting in March and this concert is a brave and successful effort by DSO president and CEO Kim Noltemy to arise and present a modified season. The results were displayed on this opening concert and it was a marvelous experience.
The small and masked audience of less than 100 souls or so were people drawn from the pool of subscribers and scattered throughout the hall. There were only 35 musicians on the stage. Strings were masked but not the winds, who obviously need access to their mouth to play. The chamber-sized orchestra was necessarily spaced out on the extended stage.
The original programming was filled with huge works. We would have heard the U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Frontispiece, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yefim Bronfman, and Copland’s thrilling Third Symphony.
But this concert was programed with audience pleasing works that were suitable for a chamber sized orchestra. Beethoven’s classically oriented Piano Concerto No. 2 and his modest, but also assertive, Symphony No. 8. So, the DSO was distilled down to its parfum, a concentration of its very best players. The result is a matchless chamber orchestra made up of exceptional artists.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, was actually his first, but the concerto in C-major was the first to be published in 1795 so it claimed the name of Piano Concerto Number 1, leaving his earlier effort, not published 1801, the name of No. 2.
What this means is that the second concerto is Mozartian in form and style. However, the later Beethoven occasionally peeks out with some drama and musical contrasts that marked his later works. Beethoven was always unhappy with the pianoforte of his early days. He pushed the makers to do more. He wanted more sound and a wider range than they offered. Since he was the leading pianist and composer of his day, the pianoforte manufactures listened and started on the path to the modern piano.
All this background is necessary when judging a performance of this work. Fortunately, Bronfman captured this hybrid style with effortless perfection. Music director Fabio Luisi was right with him, both stylistically and in ensemble.
Bronfman’s technical excellence allowed him to offer a reading with clarity and mixing the light touch of the classical period with the more robust sounds that are found in Beethoven’s later works. His hushed moments were beautiful and he never overplayed the piano when delivering Beethoven’s demands for more sound. He also played cadenzi written by Beethoven, instead of some later and showier offerings. The finale got a rousing performance and the scattered audience gave both Luisi and Bronfman a spontaneous standing ovation.
Beethoven’s eighth symphony stands between two giants, his No. 7 and the massive No. 9. In a way, like the second concerto, this is a refreshing, even classically oriented, symphony crammed full of cross rhythms, motivic development, and sudden dynamic contrasts from very soft to very loud. However, it is full of musical jokes that Luisi mostly ignored.
Other than that, this was a superb performance. With the chamber-sized orchestra, this reading is closer to how Beethoven would have heard the work. Beethoven conducted the premiere but he reportedly made a mess of it due to his advancing deafness.
By contrast, Luisi was completely in charge. His conducting without a baton had the effect of condensing his podium technique to a body-sized frame, which made the moments he burst out of such restrictions all the more effective and thrilling. Yet he wasn’t tied to his technique. His gestures actually conducted the music in addition to the tempi. Beethoven’s oddly placed accents came out of the texture like hammer strikes. Beethoven’s tempi and harmonic sudden changes were meticulously observed, but, again, the humorous jokes were missing.
Still, this was a unique, carefully crafted and creatively considered reading.
The reduced orchestra delivered exactly what Luisi asked for and played a wonderful performance. Considering this was the first time these players were in a spread-out chamber formation, and were returning from a six-month hiatus, the ensemble was surprisingly together and intonation was remarkable.
Lastly, solo bows at the end went to deserving players but, in my opinion the bassoonist should have been included.