Conductor Paul Phillips with the Meadows Symphony Orchestra

Soluna Review: Meadows Symphony

SMU’s Meadows Symphony Orchestra gives a musically satisfying performance of works by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns and Xi Wang.

published Thursday, May 14, 2015

Photo: Southern Methodist University
Conductor Paul Phillips with the Meadows Symphony Orchestra

Dallas — A wealth of youthful talent was on display on May 10 at the Meyerson Symphony Center as SMU’s Meadows Symphony Orchestra presented a performance of works by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, and Dallas-based composer Xi Wang. The concert was featured as part of the Soluna International Music & Arts Festival.

Wang’s Above Light: a conversation with Toru Takemitsu is a distinctively atmospheric work utilizing a technique suggestive of the Imagist poets; we are given familiar ideas which are articulated in their simplicity, yet the effectual consequences are sublime. As though the work were more of a confession to Takemitsu, we hear his voice at the beginning of the work and at key points in the structure through interestingly vacant but intruding harmonies. But for the rest of the time, Wang’s darker and more direct voice takes over.

The orchestra, led by Paul Philips, was a willing partner in this music, offering not just different sounds but different moods which came off with great effect. Some of the more unusual sounds such as the high sustained note in the violins produced a gentle pulsing with staggered bowing. It was perfect for that place and time in the work. This is partly due to the excellent proportions of the composition but also due to the talented musicians performing. The overall finish and competence of the playing would have anyone double-checking the program to make sure it was not a high-caliber professional ensemble on stage.

However, in Saint-Saëns’ beautiful Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 22, some features more typical of student playing were present. Some tuning and balance issues might indicate that the work was newer to the ensemble than the other pieces on the program. The MSO was joined by SMU Artist Diploma pianist Hando Nahkur. Although dramatic enough in the long fantasia prelude which begins the piece, Nahkur’s steely tone mismatched his sense of rhythmic flow. This continued as the movement progressed; the orchestra and piano never were comfortable or united in musical voice or rhythmic intention because of a distracting penchant of the pianist to lurch forward in time. The concerto would have to be heard as a piano solo to determine what were his musical motivations for this.

The middle leggieramente movement better suited Nahkur’s approach as he seemed to settle into a groove. The listener would have dismissed the black and white colors of the first movement as inexperienced playing had more variety of sound quality been introduced to the second. The finale was taken at a brisk pace perhaps slightly above the pianist’s technical abilities. Again, there was never a unity of reason or purpose. Often in louder passages, Nahkur forced the instrument beyond its maximum volume where the tone begins to break down. Although displaying his obvious talent, there was no message the listener could decipher. This pianist is definitely worth another listen, but we should hope that he himself begins to listen first.

The program concluded with Rachmaninoff’s delightful Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. In this work, Phillips remained in masterful control of dynamic pacing and balance; never once were our ears too full of sound. The conducting we watched here was ideal and reminiscent of the last generation of conductors who never sought to force action upon the musicians during performance as though nothing had been rehearsed. Yet it was specific enough to avoid being bland or generically musical as we see in many young conductors today. He allowed the brilliance of these musicians to come into focus. With fantastic ensemble within sections, the Dances made an impression of a much smaller number of musicians working together to give each rhythmic complexity a “snap” and each harmonic change a direction and movement. The excitement of the finale was so well communicated that the listener began to forget about any historical or musicological context. This is the kind of music making we so desperately need.


» We have a complete schedule in our Soluna Festival special section on TheaterJones. Look for features and previews during the Soluna Festival in our special section. For more information, such as ticket prices, visit Thanks For Reading

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Soluna Review: Meadows Symphony
SMU’s Meadows Symphony Orchestra gives a musically satisfying performance of works by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns and Xi Wang.
by Zachariah Stoughton

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