When one thinks of love and Valentine's Day, it seems odd to think of Romeo and Juliet considering how badly that turned out for everyone concerned. However, that particular couple did have some magical moments of love snatched from a swirl of disaster. Likewise, the Dallas Symphony's performance of the suite from Prokofiev's ballet on the subject had some magical moments, but they too were snatched from a swirl of indifferent conducting.
Guest conductor Julian Kuerti certainly knew the music. He conducted the Prokofiev without a score. His concept of tempo was also basically correct. The problem is that his baton technique is flabby much of the time, without a clear ictus, which leaves the orchestra guessing exactly where in his sweeping loop the beat resides. There were times when the music absolutely required the conductor's attention and there he was, very clear with good results. However, soon after, he was right back to general motions mirrored in both hands. He also tends to overplay the big moments so that there is nothing left for the really thrilling ones—but alas, so do most conductors these days.
That said, with a fine orchestra, an absolutely marvelous soloist, and a conductor that does no harm you can produce a good concert. Such was the case on Friday at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
The program opened with Debussy's Ibéria No. 2 from his larger work Images. This composition has some of Debussy's most colorful music and the DSO gave it a virtuoso performance. The two outer movements are the most spectacular and the orchestra flashed with vibrancy. The middle movement offered a perfect contrast.
The guitar is the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments—it don't get no respect. There are few concerti for them to play and the subtle nature of their sound makes balance with an orchestra difficult. Thus, they rarely appear in the high-profile orchestral concerts. The DFW-based Allegro Guitar Series routinely presents world-class guitarists in recital but they struggle for audience. Manuel Barrueco, one of greatest guitarists of our generation, ably demonstrated that his instrument can take its place on a symphony concert as well as any violinist or pianist.
Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez is one of a handful of guitar concerti that has come into the standard repertoire. (Another is by the same composer, his Fantasía para un gentilhombre.) Rodrigo has an entire catalog of marvelous, but sadly ignored, music. You would think that the popularity of his Concierto de Aranjuez, especially the entrancing second movement, would ignite an interest in his other works. Maybe it will sometime in the future.
Barrueco gave Concierto a flawless performance, all the more impressive because it was reported that he was ailing earlier in the week. Kuerti was at his best conducting this work and gave Barrueco sensitive accompaniment. The guitar was subtly amplified, so balance with the orchestra was good for the most part. The lovely English horn solo, in the justly famous second movement, was beautifully played by David Matthews. Kuerti's only failure here was to let the orchestra loose when the guitar wasn't playing. This only pointed out that they were more restrained when the soloist was present. The elements of balance were thus out of whack.
The Prokofiev ballet contains some of the composer's best music. There are various suites available and Kuerti, happily, chose one that has some sections that are not as frequently heard. It is always a crowd-pleaser and a favorite of even the most jaded concertgoer. The DSO gave it a virtuoso performance. Co-concertmaster Nathan Olson gave the skittering violin solo a fine rendition. All the winds and brass were also impressive. As already mentioned, Kuerti, overplayed the big moments, even eliciting applause at one point before the piece was over. In any event, the audience loved the performance and gave it the usual standing ovation. Kuerti gave all of the soloists and even the sections of the orchestra a well-deserved solo bow at the end.