A rising young pianist and engaging conductor team up with Dallas Symphony

Fri Oct 29, 2021 at 3:11 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Sir Mark Elder conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in music of Wagner, Mendelssohn and Elgar Thursday night.

Sir Mark Elder led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in works by Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Elgar Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center. This demanding program would prove daunting to any orchestral body; Elder repositioned the players in a different configuration, splitting the violin sections on either side of the stage. The resulting soundscape was at times engaging, and at others, unclear.

Die Meistersinger von Nümberg is Richard Wagner’s longest musical drama with a runtime of roughly four and a half hours. Conceived as a sort of satyr of his 1845 romantische oper Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger tells the story of a knight who endeavors to obtain the hand of the woman he loves by winning a singing contest.

Opening Thursday night’s concert was the opera’s Prelude. Wagner wrote that it came to him while watching “a fine sunset light up in glory the splendid view of golden Mainz,” which the opening theme captures with equal majesty on the ceremonious Meistersingers leitmotif.

Elder exercised judicious dynamic control here, emphasizing the opera’s lyrical themes while assuaging brass fanfares to fit neatly within the orchestral texture. Winds were delightfully jaunty and clear during the chirpy middle section before being accompanied by theatrical strings.

Consistent and balanced, Elder and the DSO did well to serve the Prelude’s narrative function, smartly highlighting the thematic musical material before finishing on a horn-dominant finish.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, composed for the uniquely gifted virtuoso Delphine von Schauroth in 1831, is as fun as it is virtuosic. A mere 22 years old, the composer is known to have purportedly drafted the piece in only a few short days, almost “carelessly”. It positions the piano as the immutable star of the show, with muscular arpeggios, scales, and octaves.

Isata Kanneh-Mason performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Dallas Symphony Thursday night.

Soloist Isata Kanneh-Mason is a rapidly rising star, and here she demonstrated why with a clarity and fullness of tone that was, at once, reverent and jovial. Omitting the traditional orchestral exposition of the principal themes, the piece opens with a brief crescendo statement in the ensemble that introduces the soloist with an eruption of bravura.

Kanneh-Mason’s expression of the fiery first theme, replete with clear, swirling scales and crashing chords, was answered by equally energized strings. The tranquil second theme, introduced by the soloist, saw the same level of care, characterized by a style that was full-bodied and expressive. Horns and brass served as excellent foils in the tamer passages that link the first movement to the songful Andante.

Cellos were slightly muted on the initial statement of the second movement’s chief melody, though still set tenderly against Kanneh-Mason’s flittering right-hand passages. Rolling articulations in the piano left hand brought heft and momentum before a gentle cadence leading to the attacca finale.

The virtuosic opening of the third movement stumbled slightly with a rhythmically disconnected start, but the DSO swiftly recovered with marked cohesion. Elder’s consistent dynamic control and textural balancing guided the orchestra through bold chord strikes and sudden shifts from forte to piano before Kanneh-Mason’s whirling arpeggios led to a strong tutti close.

Edward Elgar’s First Symphony, which he composed late in life at the age of 51, is a musical colossus. Clocking in at roughly 50 minutes, it dominated the second half of Thursday night’s program. Though originally imagined as an homage to the English General Charles Gordon, the composer concluded the piece as an nonprogrammatic reflection on humanity set in four movements, where the journey takes on more importance than the destination. First premiered in 1908, he uses this work to experiment with form, style, and instrumentation, with atypical use of harmonic structure and the concept of time. Still, it contains all that is quintessentially Elgar—dignity, with a sense of occasion and solemnity.

The first movement open, ideally set in a space ostensibly outside of time, though Thursday proved a bit mechanical with horns ringing out too loudly. Likewise, the entrance of the full brass section felt overpowering, an issue that persisted through the second movement. However, Elder managed to stretch out subsequent passages into lingering, poetic phrases, and trade-offs of the thematic material between winds and strings sparkled nicely.

Dynamic observances on the attacca transition between the second and third movements were nicely turned  and a welcome repose from the Wagnerian grandeur of the score.

The finale opened with dark tremolo basses, though the development section could have done with a slower tempo. Here, though, horns were appropriately layered within the overall texture, and their closing fanfare made for a strong finish.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. dallassymphony.org

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