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Soluna Review: Dvorak + Prokofiev

In a Soluna Festival chamber concert, pianist Lucille Chung and Dallas Symphony musicians excel at Prokofiev and Dohnanyi but stumble on Dvorak in Hamon Hall.

published Thursday, May 21, 2015

Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Lucille Chung

Dallas — The Soluna Festival lumbers on. The overloaded schedule is in addition to the regular duties of the Dallas Symphony, including two monster symphonies (the musicians must be exhausted). Monday night was chamber music again with an intriguing program with rarely heard and over heard works on the program.

The biggest problem was not tired musicians (except maybe in the Dvořák). In fact, most of the playing was splendid. No, the biggest problem with this concert was the venue. Hamon Hall, in the Winspear Opera House complex, is excellent for lectures and, surprisingly good for instrumental ensembles (even though the walls are covered with curtains). The problem is that without some kind of raised platform, the players are invisible to most of the audience. You can catch a glimpse of a few players through a hole made by an empty chair, or you can see bow tips rising above the sea of heads, but that is about it.

This is similar to hearing an organ recital in a large church with the organ loft in the rear over the narthex. The audiences sits facing forward on our prie-dieu pews while the artist performs behind us. In this case, the performers were in front of us, but so was everyone else—blocking our view. In any such situation, the visual disconnect significantly defeats one of the main joys of attending a live concert: watching the players.

This problem did not occur with the opening selection because the two violinists stood to play. DSO Co-concertmasters Alexander Kerr and Nathan Olson played Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, a very difficult work indeed. The inspiration for the piece occurred when the composer heard an indifferent work for two violins and was intrigued by composing within such severe limitations. This piece is anything but indifferent.

Prokofiev used a form from the baroque era, the sonata da chiesa (church sonata). Despite the name, these works were intended for mostly concert use. The main characteristic is the arrangements of the movements by tempo (slow-fast-slow-fast) and the significant use of counterpoint. Prokofiev’s take on the sonata is a spectacular display of virtuosity and the two DSO stand partners delivered in spades.

The two well-matched violinists captured the many facets of the composer’s style. They allowed his lyrical music, such as what we hear in the ballets, to soar out with intense beauty. The rough-and-tumble percussive playing, that he famously asks from the piano, was just as raw and powerful on the violin when delivered with such massive down-bows.

On the rarity side of the program, Ernst von Dohnányi’s Sextet in C Major, Op. 27, for piano, clarinet, horn and string trio was a delight. Clarinetist Gregory Raden, hornist David Cooper, violinist Eunice Keem, violist Lydia Umlauf and cellist Theodore Harvey joined pianist Lucille Chung, the featured artist of the program.

Dohnányi’s unmistakable late romantic style permeates this piece. There was also a taste of this sense of humor in the jolly last movement. His best-known piece is a quasi-piano concerto, called Variations on a Nursery Tune. After a Wagnerian introduction, the piano enters with Ah! vous dirai-je, maman (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) in simple octaves.

It is doubtful the sextet could get a better and more spirited performance. Raden is one of the best clarinetists in memory and always turns in a first rate performance. The string players were also right on throughout. Chung was a marvel at the piano. This performance of this piece, which can sound overwrought, shed it from its ultra- romantic weight. As a result, it sounded quite contemporary.

As for Cooper, he was the only one I could see, thanks to an empty chair in front. But this presented the opportunity to observe him closely during the performance. (Good thing he was unaware of my inspection.)

The most striking aspect of his playing is his total involvement in the piece at every moment. Far from sitting there, counting measures until his next entrance, Cooper is always “playing” in his mind: his face and body language reflects exactly what is going on. Thus, when it is his time to enter, he is already a part of the phrase. Thus, his entrance is smooth and completely in context. Many players do this instinctively, but not as completely as Cooper (or maybe I have not had the same opportunity to observe). His involvement in the music is noticeable in orchestral and solo performances, but it was fascinating to watch up close.

(Besides, there was nothing else to see.)

The program ended with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81, a staple of the chamber music part of the Cliburn competition and the delight of audiences. Every time you think “Oh, not the Dvořák again,” the irresistibly sublime melody in the cello, which opens the work, captures the listener’s attention and one musical treasure after another leads to the ending before you know it.

The pianist was the marvelous Lucille Chung and the string players were all from the DSO:  Kerr and Olson with violist Ellen Rose and cellist Christopher Adkins.

Although still a pleasure to hear, this was not a perfect performance. It felt thrown together based on the questionable assumption that everyone had already played the piece dozens of times. Despite its familiarity, it is difficult to put together and easy to underestimate. For example, some infamous rhythmic patterns missed the mark. This passage rarely goes correctly unless carefully prepared. Tempi were also erratic as though not completely agreed upon in rehearsal. Intonation also suffered. However, when everything was working, the piece was as marvelous as ever to hear.

» 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: Dvorak + Prokofiev
In a Soluna Festival chamber concert, pianist Lucille Chung and Dallas Symphony musicians excel at Prokofiev and Dohnanyi but stumble on Dvorak in Hamon Hall.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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