Heras-Casado leans toward the loud side of Debussy and Ravel with DSO

Fri Oct 20, 2017 at 12:46 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in music of Debussy and Ravel Thursday night. Photo: Fernando Sancho

A concert made up entirely of works of Debussy and Ravel—as was the case with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center—has a certain mad logic to it: together, these two composers achieved an apex of orchestral music in terms of beauty of tone, originality of ideas, and the melding of pictorial elements with sturdy and innovative structure. Certainly, the audience for orchestral music in 2017 continues to adore the special genius of this music, and with good reason.

        And while there were moments of striking beauty in the concert, featuring Spanish guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, one left the concert hall wishing one or two of the works had been placed in a more striking context—one that demonstrated unique qualities of this music, rather than characteristics and strategies that Debussy and Ravel tended to repeat.

        Conducting without a baton, Heras-Casado opened with Debussy’s brilliant marriage of multi-movement symphonic form and programmatic content, La Mer. The first movement, “Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” began with a sense of jerky nervousness, and culminated in a moment in which noise overwhelmed the music. While any performance of this work with a good orchestra has thrill-power, a lack of control of volume and an absence of overall impetus resulted a performance with much less magic than it could have achieved with this orchestra. The “Play of the Waves” came across with unwarranted noisiness, and, in the final moments of “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” one was more aware of just how loud the orchestra was playing than in any musical apotheosis.

        Ravel’s sturdy Piano Concerto in D for Left Hand followed, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. The French pianist, who had also been soloist for the orchestra’s most recent performance of this concerto a decade ago, demonstrated impeccable technical and emotional command. Any piano work for left hand alone creates a whole set of different-than-usual solo challenges, and Ravel threw in a whole lexicon of technical issues, ranging from rapid-fire delicacy to powerful muscle, all of which Thibaudet met successfully. The focus remained decidedly and rightfully on Thibaudet’s insightful performance, beginning with the crashing  opening theme that emerges from the orchestral clouds, to the final abrupt exclamation. Thibaudet responded to the enthusiastic ovation with more Ravel in a resonant performance of the Pavane pour une infante défunte.

        The logic of the program deteriorated after intermission with two more bits of musical outdoor scenery—Debussy’s two-part “Rondes de printemps” from Images and the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. There is a reason why a traditional symphonic program closes with a single substantial work for the second half, and, while that’s by no means a requirement for a successful orchestral concert, the sense of disjunction continued in this performance, at least partly because this significant portion of the program was devoted essentially to excerpts.

Once again, overworked volume levels and a lack of trajectory kept the Debussy work from achieving its full glory; the Ravel Suite provided yet another example of impressionistic lyricism emerging from a dark opening (as in the previous Ravel concerto and La Mer)—fine in its own right but a questionable programing strategy when reiterated several times in the same concert.

The high point of the concert arrived in the second of the three movements of the Ravel Suite, with principal flutist David Buck’s delicate and longingly expressive performance of the extended obbligato. The rousing final “General Dance” provided an energetic close to the evening. Jaded critics may question the overall trajectory of the concert and weaknesses at the podium, but the audience clearly enjoyed themselves, responding once again with a long and enthusiastic ovation.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Meyerson Symphony Center.  mydso.com214-849-4376

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