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Concert review

DSO wraps season with blazing Prokofiev, majestic Walton and offbeat premiere

Sat May 25, 2024 at 2:06 pm
By William McGinley
Denis Kozhukhin performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with Vasily Petrenko conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Sylvia Elzafon/DSO

To close the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2023-2024 season, guest conductor Vasily Patrenko took the baton for a diverse program that showcased pianist Denis Kozhukhin performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featured a world premiere, commissioned for the Dallas Symphony Children’s Chorus, and ended with the formidable Symphony No. 1 of William Walton.

Four Poems by Emily Dickinson began the program. Composer Andrea Basevi stated that he found the simplicity of Dickinson’s verses and the evocative imagery they contain to be ideal for both young performers and listeners. The poems chosen include references to wind, bees, birds, and other elements of nature. 

That provided ample opportunities for illustrative sounds from both voices and instruments, notably the breathy “whooshing” sounds for wind, vocalized “buzzing” from bees on the prairie, and a variety of bird sounds.  Together with the consonant and transparent textures of the four brief movements, these features helped capture the appealing surface simplicity of Dickinson’s poems. That simplicity was further conveyed by the sound of the children’s voices singing in unison or two-part counterpoint and by the moderate dynamics of the whole, although the chorus was somewhat overshadowed by the orchestra in a few of the more vigorous passages. Petrenko brought Basevi and DSO Children’s Chorus director Ellie Lin to acknowledge the audience applause.

Four Poems was followed by Prokofiev’s daunting Second Piano Concerto, played by Kozhukhin, who proved a forceful presence,  in his DSO debut. The music ranges veers from angular melodies through spectacular block chords to cascading arpeggios and dazzling scales—all of which were executed at phenomenal speed by Kozhukhin. Prokofiev’s concerto provides few opportunities for subtlety as even his slower, nominally lyrical passages seemed infused with ferocity.  

Petrenko, music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,  and the DSO kept pace, but the nature of Kozhukhin’s part was so vigorous that the orchestra frequently appeared as accompanist to the soloist as much as a partner in a dialogue.  Even in that role, the orchestra provided an effective foil, often sounding a sardonic march or dance rhythm that then became an effective background for the fury of the piano. 

With no slow movement, the relentless energy of the concerto built to a peak over its course, enhanced by the abrupt dynamic shifts and crisp articulations prompted by Petrenko. Following a couple of false endings that were extended by brief meditations from Kozhukhin, Petrenko brought the finale to a close with a few clipped outbursts from all the instruments that left the hall in jarring silence. 

The audience were immediately on their feet, bringing both Petrenko and Kozhukhin back for two curtain calls.  As an encore, Kozhukhin opted for an introspective contrast with “In Church,” Op. 39, no. 24 from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album.

Walton’s Symphony No. 1 made up the second half of the program. While the symphony’s four movements—fast, scherzo, slow movement, finale—suggested a more conventional piece, the Walton symphony is easily as idiosyncratic as the preceding Prokofiev concerto.

All of the movements—and especially the first and fourth—introduced themes that were fragmented and passed around among the different sections of the orchestra, sometimes being retained briefly by a solo instrument or distinct section.  Petrenko’s challenge was to weave these fragments into a coherent whole, managing the overall dynamic trajectory of each movement such that it built to a suitable climax.  Several passages relied on coloristic blends between the different sections that brought many of the thematic fragments into sharper relief, a quality Petrenko maintained consistently throughout.

Following the introduction of a barrage of percussion, the finale built anticipation for the movement’s conclusion with a series of broad thematic statements, primarily from the brass section.  As with the concerto in the first half, Petrenko deftly articulated a series of abrupt closing chords that left the hall in a momentary stark silence before the enthusiastic applause began.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m.  Sunday. dallassymphony.org

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