Dennehy’s “Memoria” sets a timely elegiac note in Dallas Symphony season finale

Sat May 28, 2022 at 4:43 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Gemma New conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Meyerson Symphony Center. Photo: Roy Cox

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s final subscription concert program of the season, led by principal guest conductor Gemma New, opened Friday at the Meyerson Symphony Center with a mixed evening of music making. While the program of Ravel, Grainger, Mussorgsky, and Donnacha Dennehy provided DSO musicians well-deserved opportunities in the solo spotlight, fitful disjointedness between conductor and musicians belied the ensemble’s customary quality and caliber.

After opening remarks by New, Dennehy’s 2021 Memoria opened the concert with relevant, reflective pathos. First performed in February of this year by the RTE Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, this 15-minute dirge was heard in its U.S. premiere. Of the piece, Dennehy writes, “Memoria is a piece inspired by the way people (or our inventions of those people) live on vividly in our minds, even when they are no longer there in real life. I’ve never felt this more strongly than in the last two years, when more than ever we have been made aware of the fragility, preciousness, and precariousness of life itself.”

Indeed, as the country grapples with two mass shootings in as many weeks—an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and a grocery store in Buffalo, New York—Dennehy’s musical elegy, which he dedicated to his late friend and mentor Hormoz Farhat, served as a timely vehicle for solemn contemplation.

Memoria opened with angst and foreboding, captured in dark pizzicato strings and fluttering flute interjections. The work percolates with dark, fragmentary ideas low in the orchestra, dispelled by light, luminous melodies in violins and winds. A stimulating section of call-and-response sees sentimental strings and orotund brass and drums bandy sections of the theme before they are revealed in earnest by the whole ensemble. New and the DSO managed a measured balance of the work’s light and dark textures with notable clarity.

Composed in 1907 in thirty days, Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole established him as a virtuoso of modern orchestral color and certified his flair for the musical expressions of Spain. (Ravel himself was half Basque). The use of modal rhythms, melodies, and ornamental figures common in popular Spanish music of the time blends organically with Ravel’s natural composition style to culminate in lively, kaleidoscopic soundscapes.

New did well in conveying the delicate dynamic range—with an opening movement that begins pianissimo and maintains nothing louder than a mezzo forte. The repetitious four-note descending theme was voiced aptly in expressions traded between several DSO soloists across the ensemble.

As DSO music director Fabio Luisi continues to experiment with orchestral formation, the disadvantages of some of these choices were evident here. With the double basses placed in a line against the back wall, the Malaguena of the second movement lacked the foundation of the their plucked ostinato figure, which could barely be heard below other voices. Further, New’s conducting style, while enjoyable to watch, lacked a clear beat, resulting in imprecision on the distinctive dance rhythms that characterize the piece.

Likewise, Percy Grainger’s “Pastoral”—the third and longest movement of his 1916 orchestral suite In a Nutshell—was overly impressionistic and too often lacked sturdy cohesion. However, New’s command of color drew out a lovely blend between flurrying scales and arpeggios in piano and lyrical solo passages in violin, cello, and oboe. Percussion elements were a bit too boisterous.

Closing the program was Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Ravel. The work began as a piano suite composed in 1874, shortly after Mussorgsky lost his close friend—Russian architect and painter Victor Hartmann. After visiting an exhibit of Hartmann’s work, he chose ten of the pieces as subjects for his suite to further memorialize his late friend. It was the late conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Serge Koussevitsky who, in 1922, commissioned Ravel to arrange the piano suite for orchestra, which was an immediate and enduring success when it premiered the following year.

A profusion of sentimentality characterized this presentation, leaving it wanting for finesse. The trumpet provided the through-line theme, introduced in the opening “Promenade.” Dynamic swells throughout, however, were distended. “The Old Castle” saw a gorgeous read of the Russian folk-inspired theme in solo alto saxophone.  In darker moments, like “Catacombs,” execution wass effective and evocative, however more jaunty and rousing sections like “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” and the finale, “The Great Gate at Kiev,” bordered on raucous. Still, New’s infusion of energy and drama earned the ensemble a boisterous ovation from a nearly full house.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

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