New, Dallas Symphony hit the dance floor with Adams, Rachmaninoff

Sat Mar 07, 2020 at 2:27 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Gemma New conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Roy Cox

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra is offering a dance-inspired program this weekend at the Meyerson Symphony Center. With Barber’s Piano Concerto as the non-Terpsichorean centerpiece, principal guest conductor Gemma New directed Friday night’s performance with a corporeal gusto befitting the theme.

Adams’ The Chairman Dances, subtitled “foxtrot for orchestra,” is an orchestral precursor to his 1987 opera Nixon in China. Here, the term “dances” is used as a verb, not a noun, depicting Chairman Mao cavorting in a fanciful foxtrot with his wife to the nostalgic sounds of a gramophone. The score presents a mixture of minimalist and romantic writing, set in a percussion-rich texture that pulsates with repeated rhythmic figures. It opens with bassoons and violas on a driving major second theme, with woodwinds and low strings quickly joining the texture on a similar figure. 

Friday night was the DSO’s debut performance of the work. New’s expressive layering provided energy and momentum, though, the off-beat piano and tuned percussive elements could have been better blended. Still, the buildup was thrilling, with bright pizzicatos in the strings and dreamy glissandos in the harps. The slower mid-section was delivered with a faint eeriness and dark bit of lyricism, with muted brass and scurrying oboe passages executed smartly, as was the hushed finale—meant to simulate the final turns of the gramophone through the use of sand block and fading staccato piano.

Barber’s Piano Concerto, composed in 1960 for the American virtuoso John Browning, is a masterful work, blending the composer’s lyricism with technical bravura. Ranked among the finest contributions to the genre by an American composer, the work calls for equal measures of power and control.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson was clearly up to the task. The opening cadenza was aptly tense and dramatic, with intricate rhythmic themes and tempos that felt well judged. The orchestra served as a lovely foil to the soloist through the movement, with a bold fortissimo at the finish that narrowly managed to avoid covering the piano. Erin Hannigan offered a lovely oboe solo in the movement’s second theme.

The middle movement of the work is cool and delicate, offering a brooding flute solo that is eventually traded between orchestra and soloist, rendered by Ohlsson with sensitivity. The barreling third movement rocks with turbulence, with Ohlsson’s dizzying solo flurries set against bright, edgy accompaniment.

After a rousing ovation, Ohlsson offered a touching rendering of Chopin’s Berceuse.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances closed the evening. Intended to be set as a ballet for Mikhail Fokin, it was the composer’s final work. It is rife with quotations, from the composer’s famously failed First Symphony to Gregorian chant and bits of Russian Orthodox liturgy.

New’s large beat and powerful gesturing made for bold orchestral declamations, but also tempos that felt a bit rushed. Conversely, the lyrical pages were lush and satisfying. The alto saxophone solos of the first movement—a wistful expression of the composer’s regret for having to leave Russia—was expertly handled by Tim Roberts. The ensuing middle movement was rhythmic, set in an expansive waltz that was, at times, a bit too slow.

In the finale, with its looming religious pull, also felt rushed, and the low strings were somewhat muddied in the Dies irae. quotation. However, the  bold, exclamatory finish was undeniably exciting and garnered a rousing ovation from the audience.

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

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