Dallas — This week’s Dallas Symphony concert, reviewed on Thursday, combines two very standard works with one that is not heard very often on the concert stage, mostly because of its complexity. Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture gave the program a dramatic opening, violinist Karen Gomyo continued the drama with an overwrought performance of Tchaikovsky’s already overwrought violin concerto, and the program ended with William Walton’s gorgeous but blindingly complex Symphony No. 1.
Overall, it was an evening displaying magnificent musicianship, both technically and musically, as the forces tackled such a difficult program.
Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar, who is Uruguayan and is music director of the Oregon Symphony, was the star of the show. First of all, he looks like the popular picture of a symphony conductor—a stereotype that is rarely realized—with his erect stance and long and wild gray hair flowing with every movement. Musically, his results were uniformly excellent and certainly conformed to an overall vision for the three very different pieces. The only problem is that much of the concert was too loud, although there were moments of exquisitely soft playing. Especially in the beautiful but bewildering Walton symphony, in which tutta forza occurred tutto il tempo. However, his baton technique is precise with only a rare descent into flapping his arms and jumping up and down. But his most valuable asset is that he knows the scores intimately and has a clear musical vision that he communicates to both orchestra and audience. This was especially noticeable as he led us through the thicket of the Walton, from the first note to the last.
Beethoven’s overture opened with monumental hammer stroke chords that, while impressive, lacked Beethoven grandeur—sounding more like the slamming of a door. However, Beethovenism reigned throughout the performance. The work was written for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy Coriolan (Shakespeare’s version, Coriolanus, is far better known), and follows the rough outline of the plot, which Kalmar shaped appropriately. He gave the main theme the atmosphere of impending war and, in the second theme, expressed the heartbreaking pleas of the hero’s mother to avoid conflict with Rome. It was all quite vivid.
Karen Gomyo brings an international flair to her playing. She was born in Tokyo but spent her early childhood in Canada. She entered the Juilliard School in New York City when she was only 11 on the personal invitation of the famous pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. She has almost superhuman technical abilities and a dramatic flair that captivates audiences worldwide. She is one of the few child prodigies that delivered, and then some, on her early promise and is undisputedly in the top ranks of violinists on the concert stage today.
What was fascinating about her performance is that she played Tchaikovsky’s original version of the concerto. The composer asked Leopold von Auer to play the premiere, but the violinist refused, saying that the piece needed some revisions in the solo part to make it more playable. Tchaikovsky edited it and this second version is what we hear today. Gomyo proved that Auer was wrong and that the first version, while transcendentally difficult, is indeed playable. She dazzled with her rendition. One of the memorable takeaways was her impeccable execution of the challenging harmonics, helped by her glorious Stradivarius violin. They rang true and clearly through the entire hall.
Walton’s Symphony No. 1 is a 20th century work that amalgamates both 19th century romantic harmonies with the chromatist complexity of his own era. While the ghosts of Sibelius and Korngold hover over the entire work, Walton’s own unique voice predominates. The difficulty he had composing the work, including long interruptions to write movie music, is evident in the wandering nature of the final product.
This is a work that is obviously meaningful for Kalmar; it is in his active repertoire, and he brings a deep understanding to the piece. This was especially noticeable in the slow movement. He brought an intimacy to the music that conveyed the feeling of melancholy required by the tempo marking Andante con malinconia without resorting to 19th-century sobbing. Right from the opening flute solo, he established that this melancholy is deeply rooted on the inside rather that displayed in an extroverted manner. The fugal section rose slowly to its apex and then faded away.
Walton wrote the finale last—the premiere occurred without it—and it lacks the subtly of the other movements. It is very loud, even employing a second timpanist. It is also filled with false endings, to which Kalmar did little to minimize. But when it finally concluded with an explosion of sound that seemed to last for almost 10 minutes, the audience rose in a spontaneous standing ovation.