Dallas — Thursday at Meyerson Symphony Center, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra returned to the music of Ohio-born rock guitarist, pop songwriter, Grammy winner, and classical composer Bryce Dessner (of the band The National, which includes his brother Aaron Dessner), this time with the American premiere of Dessner’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra.
The new Concerto, performed by the orchestra with Slovak Juraj Valčuha conducting and Dutch trombonist Jörgen van Rijen as soloist, proved itself an impressive addition to the repertoire of the trombone as well as a potentially intriguing item for orchestral programs. Dessner, whose Lachrimae and St. Carolyn by the Sea appeared on Dallas Symphony concerts in 2016 (with Dessner as guitar soloist for the latter), here relies on the now time-honored minimalist techniques of relentless repetition and hypnotic waves of sound, but enhances the minimalist tradition with a constantly engaging array of instrumental colors and surprising turns.
Aurally, the work falls into a three readily recognizable sections, with a short lively prelude-like movement and a second brief meditative movement, followed by an adventurous extended section. The opening introduces a motif largely comprised of a single pitch segmented into short exclamations—a gesture repeated throughout the work. This section, rich with echoes and conversational passages between the soloist and various parts of the orchestra, ends abruptly, leading into a grey-toned backdrop in the strings from which a lyrical trombone theme emerges for a section corresponding to a traditional symphonic Adagio. While Dessner’s score lingers on single ideas in the first two sections, the third section introduces a variety of related motifs in a set of musical adventures, ranging from driven motoric phrases to a particularly beautiful passage showing off the trombone’s possibilities as a lyrical instrument. A single, held note in the trombone brings this fascinating musical journey to a striking conclusion.
Dessner composed the Trombone Concerto earlier this year while in epidemic-related isolation with his family in southern France; this will undoubtedly mark the work historically as a product of the coronavirus era, in this case reflecting, at least to this listener, the moodiness, exasperation, and determination of our troubled times, colored with optimism and self-discovery. Trombonist Van Rijen, who performed the work’s world premiere in September in Cologne, Germany, here presented the excruciatingly demanding solo part with energy, unfailing technical virtuosity, and insightful musicality.
Conductor Valčuha previously appeared with the Dallas Symphony in March of 2019 in an impressive all-romantic program of Mendelssohn, Respighi, and Richard Strauss; in Thursday’s concert, performed before a limited audience of several dozen scattered through the caverns of the Meyerson, he not only proved adept with the 21st-century complications of the Dessner score, but with the special demands of presenting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C during the age of COVID-19.
Current conditions dictate reducing the Dallas Symphony’s full entourage of strings by more than half to an ensemble of 22—a strategy sometimes employed even in ideal circumstances, since this was the usual maximum size of late-18th-century orchestras. In this case, however, the reduced size was complicated by the demand for wide spacing among the musicians, as well as the acoustic hollowness of a 2000-seat hall holding an audience of fewer than one hundred music-lovers.
Conductor Valčuha turned these challenges to advantage for the Beethoven work, producing lively clarity particularly in the Menuetto movement, lingering on the edges of exhilarating folk-dance, 18th-century courtly dance, and full-blown symphonic Scherzo.
The folk-inspired Dances of Galánta by 20th-century Hungarian nationalist composer Zoltán Kodály provided the finale for the entire concert (which, in keeping with current health precautions, extended to only 75 intermissionless minutes). Valčuha exercised an appropriately broad rubato and drew a wonderful variety of coloristic effects from the orchestra: one could well imagine looming storm clouds, blossoming fields, passionate lovers, market-day festivals, and even, at one point, the town drunk in this sophisticated, idealistic musical depiction of central European folklife. (The city of Galanta is, incidentally, now inside the boundaries of conductor Valčuha’s native Slovakia.) While clearly delineating the wonderful range of timbrel effects indicated in Kodály’s score, Valčuha coaxed a sweeping “big orchestra” sound from the reduced orchestra when appropriate, achieving a fine, rousing closing for a life-affirming concert presented during dark times.