Dallas — Gemma New, the 33-year-old, New Zealand-born principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, took the podium at Meyerson Symphony Center Friday night for a program drawn entirely from the 20th century’s classical music hit parade. Works by Adams, Rachmaninoff, and Barber, all established concert audience favorites, promised an evening of opulently orchestrated modernism, late romanticism, and neo-romanticism, which New and the orchestra delivered neatly, albeit with a few questionable points along the way.
American composer John Adams’ The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra uses material closely related to (but not specifically drawn from) the seminal opera Nixon in China of 1987, which, at its premiere in Houston, marked the birth of the still-lively trend of opera based on current events as well as a deepening and richening of musical minimalism. Here, the hypnotic repetitiveness pioneered by Philip Glass becomes enriched with grander gesture and self-consciously beautiful orchestrations, and The Chairman Dances (referring to Chinese dictator and Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong) provided a glittering, enticingly energetic curtain-raiser for the evening, albeit with a rough, tentative opening from conductor New.
In 1962, 25 years before the premiere of Nixon in China, American composer Samuel Barber ventured a bold return to romanticism with his Piano Concerto, a remarkable marriage of muscular virtuosity and unapologetic lyricism. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined New and the orchestra for the work, bringing unapologetic athleticism to the starkly dramatic opening passage and later, still in the first movement, to the torrential cadenza. Ohlsson made the piano sing in the gently elusive middle movement, rich with overtones of Rachmaninoff and Schumann with only an occasional nod to the twentieth century; he moved full force into the final movement, in which the piano and orchestra become a giant percussive instrument. An extended audience ovation demanded an encore, which Ohlsson provided in the form of Chopin’s gently dreamy Berceuse, once again making the piano “sing.”
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances of 1940 find that composer, a child of late Russian imperial romanticism, in exile in modern urban America. Decades ago, back when this concert-going veteran was young, Rachmaninoff was considered an anomaly, whose music clung nostalgically to the 19th century. In the Symphonic Dances, however, we clearly hear a composer who has absorbed the gestures of modernism as well as the energy and tragedy of the modern world. Meanwhile, he retained his roots in romanticism with his unmatched gift for melody and musical structure. It is, in short, a work that deserves to rank among the orchestral masterpieces of the 20th century.
The orchestra played in top form for the Symphonic Dances; conductor New once again took a few moments to focus in the opening, and, throughout, indulged in overwrought accents and noisy volume levels. In spite of these miscalculations, the overall effect of the concert was of a fascinating glimpse of three very different but consistently appealing works created in the not-too-distant past.