Dallas — The Dallas Symphony appears to be like a musical chameleon, reflecting the style of the conductor. This is most noticeable when you hear them with two different conductors in a row. The weekend of Jan. 8, with the elegant Music Director-Designate Fabio Luisi, the program moved at a reasonable pace and only became sluggish at the end. This weekend, with exuberant guest conductor Jader Bignamini at the helm, the concert moved at a breakneck pace gathering more steam as it went. The DSO gave each conductor what they indicated and, as a result, the orchestra sounded quite different in each performance. While Luisi’s concert was pristine, Bignamini’s was, well, less so.
Bignamini arrived with an impressive résumé that includes being the resident conductor of the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan, as well as a list of top orchestras where he has appeared as a guest. His podium technique is energetic and relatively clear. Musically, he tends to quick tempi and exaggerated dynamics, both of which alternated between creating some visceral excitement — occasionally at the cost of precise ensemble — and changing the conception of the composer’s intentions.
The program was oddly constructed, opening with two major works and relegating the usual curtain-raiser overture to the second half. Using a shorter opener has some advantages, which is why it is so commonly used. For one thing, it allows for latecomers seating without a long delay and for another it allows the audience to settle in and get prepared to listen.
Of course, this is not a requirement handed down by decree and opening with Prokofiev’s delightful Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, is a good selection for swimming against the tide. It also has the advantage of being short (about 15 minutes or so).
This work is an homage to Papa Haydn, who invented the basic form that symphonies have taken since. The composer closely follows that form but uses his distinctive harmonic language with a Mozartian twist. It would have improved the performance if Bignamini had taken a more classical approach. Instead he took an early Beethoven-like approach that changed the basic character. However, it was interesting to hear it with a less precious approach. It sounded more like Prokofiev when shorn of its original intent. This approach worked best in the slow movement. However, the last movement was too fast, no matter what approach Bignamini chose to take.
Violinist Gil Shaham took his lead from Bignamini, or visa-versa, in a bold performance of Dvořák's Violin Concerto. Whereas the previous Prokofiev proffered an adherence to form, Dvořák made some noticeable innovations to the concerto form found in other work of the era, such as the concerto by Brahms. Mainly he shortened some of the orchestral tutti passages and led directly into the slow movement without the usual bravura ending to the first one.
This concerto is not heard as often as others in the repertoire and it was a pleasure to hear it, especially in the hands of Shaham. He gave it an intense reading, sometimes even to the point of sacrificing his refined sound to drama. But when he employed his more usual sound as contrast, he delivered some absolutely beautiful playing. Tempi were generally good but the last movement, based on the Bohemian folk-dance rhythms so dear to the composer, was too fast to hear its distinctive accents.
In an unconventional move, Shaham played a modest duet for two violins by the 18th-century French composer Jean-Marie Leclair, inviting Co-concertmaster Nathan Olson to join him. Apparently, they took turns playing the first violin part.
Dvořák returned to open the second half with an encore, his Carnival Overture. Bignamini gave this celebratory piece a boisterous reading that added a slightly frantic overtone to the proceedings. Still, it was quite effective if not to everyone’s taste.
But things went from bordering on frantic to a deep dive into overwhelming with Tchaikovsky’s overwrought tone poem, Francesca da Rimini. The subject itself is overwrought which probably made it attractive to the brilliant but slightly neurotic composer. The tragic narrative comes from fifth canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Francesca da Rimini had the misfortune to fall in love with her husband’s brother. For this, they were murdered. Bad enough but even worse, they were condemned to hell for adultery, where their punishment was to fly forever in the torrential winds of a violent storm and be further tormented by the memory of their love.
Here, Bignamini’s bare knuckle bravura was right at home. Agree or not, his exciting reading caught all of us up in his vivid, to say the least, recreation of Tchaikovsky’s hellish winds. It was quite a ride and resulted in a huge and spontaneous ovation from the thrilled audience.