Gaffigan makes a mixed impression with DSO in orchestral showpieces

Fri Nov 03, 2017 at 2:39 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

James Gaffigan conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in music of Copland, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky Thursday night. Photo: Mat Hennek

American guest conductor James Gaffigan barreled through a program of romantic and twentieth-century music with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center—finding the thrills but often overlooking the poetry in well-known works of Copland, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky.

        On the surface, Copland’s El Salon Mexico is a touristy, even colonialist collection of popular tunes—albeit skillfully collated, and gussied up with Copland’s delightfully colorful orchestral effects and resonant harmonies. If there’s a more profound imagining of desperate, impulsive celebration underneath, Gaffigan chose to ignore that possibility, instead playing up the condescending comedy and noise, particularly of those booming bass drum exclamations. The orchestra, to its credit, responded neatly and efficiently across the wide spectrum of effects, ranging expertly from delicacy to bombast.

Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

        This high-octane approach worked much more successfully when British pianist Stephen Hough joined Gaffigan and the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. One of the great Rachmaninoff interpreters of our time, Hough combined elegantly sharp passagework and muscular depth of tone for a breathtaking technical display, at the same time bringing a perfect balance of intellectual understanding and instinctive emotion to the work.

Here, Gaffigan tuned in to Hough’s reading to provide a nicely momentous performance, finding high drama and even occasional surprises in this familiar work. Even the most jaded listener waits for that magical transformation of Paganini’s dry little tune into a broad romantic aria in the seventeenth and eighteenth variations; here, Hough painted the threatening clouds and the ensuing radiance with a perfectly paced molto rubato.

        One might speculate that conductor Gaffigan, 38 years old and currently chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, is a candidate for the soon-to-be-vacant position of music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra—and that his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony can be regarded as his main audition item.

Gaffigan took an uncomfortably rough start with this oft-performed work, with a disturbingly ambivalent beat in the opening phrases before landing noisily on the second theme. This unfortunately set the tone for the entire performance, with Gaffigan uncovering interesting colors—particularly in the Waltz third movement—but constantly creating rambunctious climaxes which, though admittedly exciting, undermined the work’s trajectory and structure. The brass responded bravely and noisily to Gaffigan in the finale, as the conductor created a triumph of volume over music.

Andrew Bain, principal horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, served as guest principal horn for the concert, taking on the extended horn solo in the Andante with a fine, resonant tone and expressiveness, providing the high point of the second half of the program.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Meyerson Symphony Center.; 214-849-4376

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