Dallas — The Dallas Symphony opened this weekend’s series of approach-avoidance concerts on Thursday night in the Meyerson Symphony Center, kicking off the fifth annual Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival. The hall was packed for the first ”approach” half, Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony and the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but shifted for the second half to the “avoidance” side of the fence, with Carl Nielsen’s bewildering fifth symphony. This was easily observable on Thursday evening as the audience thinned out dramatically during intermission.
This vacating effect was somewhat surprising because the music of Carl Nielsen is rarely preformed these days and the fifth symphony appears on programs even less than the rest of his oeuvre. It is, indeed, a difficult symphony to hear and digest with its bizarre structure, modernist harmony, conflicting elements, and lack of an earworm. But apparently, Dallas audiences knew what was coming and fled the hall in droves. I was reminded of a quip of dance impresario Sol Hurok: “When people don't want to come, nothing will stop them.”
Guest conductor John Storgårds comes from Finland, which gives him a cultural advantage with the music of both Finnish Sibelius and Danish Nielsen. Both countries have significant territory above the artic circle, so winter is long, dark and damp. Thus, the all-too-short and warmer summer is practically worshiped. These shared climatic conditions, along with craggy landscapes, saturate the shared Norse cultures.
Unfortunately, Storgårds brought little of this cultural advantage to the performance. His indeterminate podium antics were almost impossible to discern, but the fabulous DSO managed to pull off the performance in spite of that. They looked to concertmaster Alexander Kerr, who fulfilled the position’s historic duties as both violinist and conductor. Storgårds’ musical concept appears to be completely concerned with acoustic contrasts peppered, all too often, with a rasher of rafter-rattling crescendi.
One of the delights of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, "Surprise," is his sudden sforzandi that end almost child-like and peaceful sections. Storgårds exaggerated these humorous moments with such force that even Haydn himself would have been surprised.
The Sibelius Violin concerto is a perennial favorite of violinists and audiences alike. Violinist extraordinaire Augustin Hadelich delivered a note-perfect performance of the technical gymnastics that the composer, a violinist himself, set forth in his concerto. Hadelich is a reserved performer who finds it out-of-character to let loose of his highly controlled demeanor. Such was not the case with Storgårds, who frequently exaggerated the powerful tutti passages driving them completely beyond the sonic range Hadelich so carefully set.
Hadelich’s sound is quite beautiful and can be assertive, but it always sounds slightly withheld. He certainly plays on a magnificent instrument: a Kiesewetter Stradivarius from 1723, named after its first owner, German composer and violinist Christophe Gottfried Kiesewetter (1777-1827). But Strads can be capricious and, remarkably, appear to take on the characteristics of the player. It would be interesting to hear another violinist play on it.
That aside, Hadelich gave a magnificent performance and the listeners were astounded by his impeccable technique; the rapturous audience demanded an encore. He reaffirmed our evaluation by launching into Paganini’s Caprice for Solo Violin, Op. 1, No. 24. It is best known for Rachmaninoff’s use of it for his much-loved pseudo-concerto, Variations on a Theme of Paganini. However, by itself for solo violin, it is packed with mind-boggling technical marvels, which Hadelich tossed off with élan as though it was a student’s piece.
The Nielsen symphony that closed the program to a greatly reduced audience suffered from Storgårds’ tendency to exaggerate. The music frequently struggles against itself, much like the war-weary post-WW1 milieu in which it was created. The orchestra did a magnificent job playing this complex and technically demanding symphony in spite of Storgårds’ ministrations. The principal winds demonstrated their exceptional musicianship and command of their instruments throughout.
In spite of these reservations, it was still an exciting performance of a rarely heard piece. I was not sure exactly what I had just heard, but it was effective and roused what audience remained to a spontaneous ovation.