With a program switch, Dallas Symphony balances fire and solace

Fri May 20, 2022 at 4:11 pm
By J. Robin Coffelt
Gemma New conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

There was supposed to have been Rachmaninoff.

This weekend’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra performances, featuring principal guest conductor Gemma New and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, initially featured Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as its box-office bait. But Ukrainian-born Gavrylyuk, citing the war in his native land, chose to substitute the lighter-hearted Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 in in D-flat Major, instead.

Although the Prokofiev is less well known than the originally programmed Rachmaninoff, it is a technical tour de force that in the right hands—and Gavrylyuk’s hands are certainly those—is pure magic. Cast in a single continuous movement, the concerto calls for prodigious technique, especially in the outer sections (Allegro brioso and Allegro scherzando, respectively). 

Gavrylyuk delivered that technique. While he tended towards a bit too much drama in the middle slow section and chose a tempo so fast in the final one that the orchestra could barely keep up, it was a crowd-pleasing, standing-ovation-guaranteed whirlwind. And perhaps he’s right. Perhaps this kind of flash and fury is exactly what’s called for in these times, a welcome distraction from the weight of world events.

Gavrylyuk announced that his encore was also chosen with the war on Ukraine in mind—Schumann’s Träumerei, “Dreaming.” He suggested that it represented to him a dream for peace. A lovely and relevant sentiment, to be sure, though one might also dream of a smidge less ostentatious rubato.

The program’s opener was Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis, which is an arrangement of the second movement of the composer’s String Quartet No. 1. Inspired by medieval music, especially that of Hildegard von Bingen, it also incorporates echoes of minimalism, with a simple melody that is varied throughout. While many listeners might have found the DSO strings’ skillful performance of this piece a meditative sanctuary, one concertgoer felt the need to declare, “I don’t like this!” during a particularly quiet passage.

Conductor Gemma New, however, is growing increasingly idiosyncratic in her conducting style, which is doing neither her nor the orchestra any favors. Clear beats have been replaced with swooping, rotator-cuff-imperiling choreography that is distracting to watch and must be frightening to try to follow.

The orchestra gamely worked around this liability Thursday, producing a mostly excellent post-intermission performance of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet

These selections included movements from all three orchestral suites, in an order that reflects the plot of the play. Thus, “Montagues and Capulets” from the second suite was played before “Romeo and Juliet” from the first suite, which makes artistic sense. 

The orchestra mostly sounded excellent, a few ensemble issues notwithstanding, with impressively clean string playing in the frenzied “Death of Tybalt.” Notable among many exemplary solos: warm, full flute solos by David Buck, and a fine tuba solo by Matt Good in “Romeo and Juliet before Parting.

This is crowd-pleasing music and offered an exciting performance by the DSO.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday. dallassymphony.org.

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