DSO tests its mettle with virtuoso guests Vengerov, Zhang

Fri Nov 22, 2019 at 4:42 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Xian Zhang leads the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in two more performances this weekend at Meyerson Symphony Center. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra is offering a vibrant program this weekend at the Meyerson Symphony Center, with guest conductor Xian Zhang and violinist Maxim Vengerov atop the bill, and Bruch, Ravel and Prokofiev comprising the scores. In Thursday’s opening performance, the orchestra proved to be a match for its imposing visitors.  

Max Bruch was vexed to find that his first violin concerto would become his most enduring. But the Violin Concerto in G Minor is a memorable and lyrical subversion of traditional sonata form. It contains only three movements, the first of which, the Vorspiel, functions as a prelude rather than a large, elaborate movement. 

Vengerov was an artful and expressive voice in this emotive work. The concerto opens with rolling timpani and plush dialogue between the soloist and orchestra that leads into the declaration of the first subject in solo violin. Here, Vengerov’s phrasing gave depth and dimension to the melody, which Zhang and the orchestra answered back in a rousing section that recalled the opening dialogue, but in grander texture, before slipping seamlessly into the second-movement Adagio.

The opening of the Adagio was a thoughtful whisper — perhaps a bit too soft in the strings — as the solo violin lilted high above with the first of three lingering themes. It is a movement full of feeling, with wailing lines in violin set against lush, dark orchestral layering. The basses, for example, stood out for their rich sounding of the movement’s secondary theme beneath violin triplets. 

Zhang led the orchestra into the Finale with an attentive hush before giving way to Vengerov for the lively rondo theme. The orchestra was a clean and clear foil to the triumphant violin, ending the concerto with a lovely exclamation in G major.

Up next was Maurice Ravel’s rhapsodic Tzigane for violin and orchestra, nine heart-stopping minutes of technical fireworks, and Vengerov’s recordings of it are considered a gold standard. His interpretation Thursday was no less — fierce and speedy, with a consistently warm tone on the Hungarian gypsy themes that run through the work’s melodic center. He employed dramatic stops, and a precise and clear pizzicato in both the right and left hands. About halfway through, the orchestra joined in with an intoxicating flurry of harp and a fluttering piccolo solo. Zhang and the DSO captured the texture of this playfully dark composition. 

The standing ovation and three curtain calls that followed yielded an encore of Bach’s Sarabande for violin, which Vengerov performed with expressive beauty.

The second half belonged to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6, and the DSO’s full prowess was on display here, with instrumental textures moving and shifting effectively under Zhang’s smart direction. She was animated and focused, her pointed gestures eliciting an impressive blend of instrumental voices. The first movement opened with staccato horns that bled into rich, legato strings, and dynamic phrasing that created an air of deep melancholy. The DSO’s navigation of the restless tempo changes that come later on brought the movement a satisfying close.  

Zhang cued a brilliant outburst to launch the second movement, with notable precision on the bright staccato passages for horns and woodwinds. The movement carried into a sweeping lyricism, with fanfares and drumrolls before ending quietly with solo bassoon and trumpet. 

The finale, Prokofiev’s expression of post-World War II optimism, demands virtuosity from every section of the orchestra, with the movement residing primarily in a boisterous vivace. Here, the Meyerson hall was a powerful projector of the last movement’s immensity of sound, and of Zhang’s energetic reading, as she evoked the dark languor of the first movement before driving the ensemble to a sudden, bright finish.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. mydso.com; 214-305-6217

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