Märkl, Gerstein bring fresh spirit to populist favorites with Dallas Symphony

Fri Apr 15, 2022 at 2:24 pm
By J. Robin Coffelt
Jun Märkl conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

This weekend’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concerts feature perhaps the most crowd-pleasing program in a long while. With the exception of a little-known overture by Mendelssohn, the program, under the baton of guest conductor Jun Märkl, was a festival of populist favorites: Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”

Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt) was inspired by a pair of short poems by Goethe that would have been familiar to early 19th century readers Goethe met Mendelssohn when the latter was twelve years old, and inspired the young composer to write this concert overture a few years later, when Mendelssohn was just 19. Shimmering but tricky string and woodwind writing, and a delightful trumpet fanfare to close, were handled beautifully by the DSO, aided by Märkel’s crisp downbeats and clear direction.

Robert Schumann’s sole Piano Concerto, Op. 54 in A major, is a staple of every keyboard artist’s repertoire, yet in the hands of soloist Kirill Gerstein, it became far more than a mere warhorse Thursday night.

The Schumann is not a virtuosic piece in any case—it shows off a player’s deeper musicality more than mere flashy technique.  Gerstein delivered throughout with graceful phrasing and tasteful rubato yet, though consistently thoughtful his playing was still exciting throughout.

The orchestra for the most part followed Gerstein’s lead—in the second movement, the cellos sounded especially lovely in their well-known tutti melody, soaring above the orchestra without overwhelming the piano. Märkl provided artful shaping of details, with precise attention to articulation, phrasing, and accents, that consistently benefited the music.

Many listeners in the fairly full house were likely there to hear Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” It is one of the most popular pieces in the symphonic repertoire, at least for American audiences, and with good reason. 

Märkl has a thoughtful if sometimes quirky approach to this symphony. While not prone to excess, he knows how to milk a dramatic moment, which is a useful quality in this piece. In the second movement, David Matthews delivered a beautiful, soulful rendition of the famous English hornist solo, after some initial but brief reed issue. In the third movement, principal Flute David Buck—indeed, the whole flute section—evinced some magnificent playing, and the cellos sounded absolutely excellent, while horns seemed to glow.  A few minor issues aside, this concert enjoyed magnificent playing from the DSO.

The orchestra’s new arrangement, however, with firsts and seconds facing each other at the front of the stage, continues to do them few favors. Violas are swallowed up in the middle of the stage, which is especially a shame since they are sounding terrific with some judicious new hires. The back couple stands of second violins are sometimes noticeably behind their counterparts at the front, as well. Perhaps the orchestra will adapt, but, for now, the setup doesn’t seem to be ideal.

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

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