The Dallas Symphony plodded through a problematic concert on Thursday at the Meyerson Symphony Center. The fault has to be laid directly in the lap of Spanish guest conductor Pablo González, because everyone else worked hard to pull it off.
The glamorous violinist Nicola Benedetti, who was born in 1987 in North Ayrshire, one of the Scottish council areas, into a family of Italian heritage, was worlds better than in her last appearance here. Back then, she overplayed Mendelssohn's modest violin concerto, trying to make it something that it is not. This time, in a more modest manner she launched into Tchaikovsky's virtuoso and romantically overheated violin concerto and lit it on fire.
The first movement had such drive and excitement that spontaneous applause at its conclusion required her to give a little bow—and then a couple more. The cadenza was particularly well played with absolutely dead-on harmonics, which is not always the case. The second movement was played in an opposite manner. Benedetti sang Tchaikovsky's sad song in a simple, straightforward way. She brought out the melancholy that hangs over the movement, with its combination of a simple Italian Canzonetta, overlaid with Slavic influence. Her tone on the melody, played mostly on the G-string, was rich and burnished without a hint of overplaying. She gave the entire movement an improvised feel by allowing some freedoms within the melodic materials while staying within the confines of the basic tempo. The Russian influenced finale was on the fast side, to say the least, but there was no doubting the excitement that crackled like an electric change in the hall.
Benedetti has a firm technique that allows her to play anything cleanly and with excellent intonation. She elicits a big sound and imbued her performance on Thursday with a big helping of personality, without overdoing the physicality inherent in playing the instrument, as some are wont to do. She also knows how to use vibrato to color her performance. There were moments where she eschewed its use altogether and others where she poured it on in high romantic mode.
There were a few quibbles. Repeated phrases were often played in exactly the same way, when a little variety in the repeat would have been a nice touch. Also, not all of her nuances comfortably fit to the music. For example, she occasionally missed a lovely opportunity for a slight ritard but then used it immediately elsewhere, where it wasn't quite as effective. This is not a criticism, by the way. It was as if the concerto is still a work in progress for her and she is still experimenting. For an artist to feel the freedom to let things happen in a live performance, not to have every nuance locked down, is refreshing. You somehow know that the next time you hear her play the concerto, it will be different as she grows into the heart of the work. No cookie-cutter "this is how I play it" interpretations here.
Unfortunately, the same was true of Pablo González. However, you suspect that it was not because he is open to growing in his understanding and interpretations of the works he is conducting. It is because he is fuzzy on how it is going right in the here and now. In the Tchaikovsky concerto, he had Benedetti to take the lead while he tagged along like the little brother your mother made you take to the park. He was with her most of the way and managed to keep the DSO dynamically under her most of the time. However, when she stopped playing, he seemed to be surprised to be all by himself and only warmed into the tutti after a few uncertain notes.
In the Brahms Symphony No. 1, he was all on his own, conducting one of the great masterpieces of symphonic literature with a fine orchestra used to Maestro Jaap van Zweden and the best guest conductors in the world. It had to be slightly intimidating for the young European, just beginning to make his mark in the United Sates. He certainly knew the score and, agree or not, had solid ideas about how he thought it should go. What he lacked on Thursday was a sense of the inner rhythm of the work so that he was never able to center on an a tempo for any section. It wasn't that the tempo rushed or dragged, it was that it never established a pace whereby those terms could be relevant.
Standing erect with his legs spread to make an upside down letter "a", his motions were sometimes small and other times overblown, but he never over-conducted or mirrored in an objectionable manner. It was his indecision that made his conducting technique ineffective. Many times, he couldn't decide whether he was in a bigger beat or subdividing. For example, at one point, he was too slow for being in one but too fast for being in two, so he kept vacillating back and forth. Now there are many times where switching back and forth like this is a good thing, but only when certain passages need a more precise beat here while others need expansion there, but never when neither is comfortable for the conductor. Hemiola, or moving the accent away from the downbeat, is a favorite trick of Brahms, but it left González flummoxed every time. While it is common for conductors to overplay Brahms these days, González had blown out the dynamic scale early on in the first movement. While he never lacked for volume, we never felt the weight and gravitas that is the hallmark Brahms.
Admittedly, with a guest conductor, you cannot expect the same results that we get with the demanding Maestro van Zweden on the podium. However, we missed the ensemble and the precision of the entrances that we are used to hearing. In spite of all of this, the orchestra played beautifully. All of the solo winds, brass and co-concertmaster Nathan Olson were impressive in the solo passages. The horn section had a great night and the brass chord near the ending was appropriately thrilling.
The program opened with yet another rushed reading of Dvorák's Carnival Overture. We have heard this admittedly delightful piece a number of times in recent years. Please, we can hear some of Dvorák's other equally fine overtures, if nothing else?