DSO mixes it up with sturdy Beethoven, twisty Shostakovich

Fri Oct 15, 2021 at 2:10 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Carlos Kalmar conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Grant Park Music Festival

Led by guest conductor Carlos Kalmar, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Beethoven and Shostakovich Thursday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center was largely successful, even if uneven blending between sections of the orchestra detracted from the DSO’s typical brilliance.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, later titled  “Emperor” by an English music publisher, opened the program, with Garrick Ohlsson as guest soloist. Completed in 1809, “Emperor” was composed at a turbulent time for Beethoven. In that year, his ensuing deafness was nearing a state of totality, and Napoleon’s siege and occupation of Vienna left him furious and defiant.
Ohlsson’s treatment of the text was a mixed bag of heft and delicacy, sometimes distributed unevenly. The American pianist’s technical prowess was clear and evident in the sweeping cadenzas of the first movement, however attention to phrasing and lyrical shaping was often wanting.
The success of this performance was in the ensemble’s delivery under Kalmar. Though the dynamic extremes of strings and winds sometimes called attention to themselves, the accompaniment was consistent in its energy, direction, and cohesion. As the score calls for a lighter orchestral complement, the forces were sometimes buried by Ohlsson’s forte passages.
The nocturne-like slow movement was songful, with Ohlsson exercising an even, light touch throughout, before moving directly into the attacca Rondo. Here, Kalmar astutely led the orchestra through the upwardly bounding iterations of the syncopated theme, closing the finale with a strong, welcomed balance between soloist and ensemble.
Standing ovations brought the soloist back to the stage for an encore of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata, here given a lovely reading by Ohlsson.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, like Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, was composed in a time of war. Socialist Realism was the prevailing musical philosophy of1930s Soviet Russia, and Shostakovich’s career was marked by denunciations from the political and cultural authorities. His ostensibly patriotic Fifth Symphony stabilized his reputation, so when the quirky and melancholy Sixth Symphony debuted, it defied cultural expectation and was long relegated to obscurity, though the work has found a semi-regular footing since then in concert halls.
Set in three movements rather than the conventional four, the piece opens with an unexpected Largo that amounts for more than half of the entire work’s run time. It is hushed and unhurried with a dark thematic center, irreverent to the cultural demands of positive patriotism expected in an opening movement.
Here, the DSO shone, with luminous strings opening the piece on a simple melodic theme. Almost immediately, Kalmar established an orchestral color appropriately rife with tension. Adequate space was provided for soft, characteristic tremolo strings to percolate under lovely solo turns between featured winds and English horn.
Drastic dynamic shifts in the second movement Scherzo were traversed skillfully with a frolicsome touch that bordered on humorous. The third movement felt, at times, rushed and was frequently clamorous in dynamics, but flurrying piccolo passages were provided cleanly. Kalmar and the DSO managed a high-spirited finish with a shower of orchestral sparks.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday. dallassymphony.org

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