Texas Classical Review » Blog Archive » Pair of Debuts Spark Majority French DSO Schedule

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Juanjo Mena conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night. Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra program this weekend was called “Ravel and Debussy,” so it started – you guessed it! – a symphony by Haydn.

No. 44 in E minor (“Trauer-Symphonie”) to be exact. While the promised works by Ravel and Debussy have indeed made their appearance, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and the Iberia—there was also music by Ginastera, his Concertante Variationswhich makes the programming somewhat inconsistent.

That said, the Haydn, as inexplicable as it is, was played mostly well under Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena in his DSO debut. This “Mourning” symphony, from the composer’s “Sturm und Drang” era, is a dark concert overture. Yet the first violins were always clean and crisp, even with fairly large sections, although the seconds were not always together. Mena persuaded a magnificent phrasing from the orchestra—the third movement in particular, a contemplative Adagio. The final movement, a remarkably dark presto, was relatively tight except for the late second violins. This repertoire has not historically been the strength of the DSO, but those days seem to be behind them.

Ravel’s Concerto in G Major was performed by pianist Javier Perianes, who was also making his first appearance with the DSO. The concerto could not be more contrasting in Haydn’s character. The spicy first movement, a Gershwin-style, jazz-infused romp with lots of percussion, was fun but, as played on Thursday night, not completely convincing. What should have been a delight seemed a bit dull.

The first movement continues with the crystalline slow movement, with its long opening piano solo. Maintaining the melodic line of this introduction is a formidable challenge, and Perianes has largely been up to it. Finally, the orchestra enters and treats us Thursday to a golden and warm flute solo by David Buck and a hauntingly beautiful English horn solo by David Matthews.

The frenetic third movement, marked presto, takes us back to jazz, and showed that Perianes is more than capable of the virtuosity of this movement. This Ravel concerto shows off the pianist’s skill set, and for the most part, Perianes delivered.

Ginastere Concertante Variations has as its calling card an emphasis on the solos of the principal players of a variety of instruments, allowing sometimes overlooked instruments to be featured. The variations incorporate flavors from Ginastera’s native Argentina, resulting in an enthusiastic response from audiences. The overture features excellent solos by harpist Emily Levin and cellist Christopher Adkins, followed by top-notch solos on viola by Meredith Kufchak, violin by Nathan Olson and bass by Nicolas Tsolainos, among others. For this repertoire, Mena has a loose and relaxed conducting style suited to the repertoire.

The program ended with Debussy Iberia. The three programmatic movements describe a night and a morning in Spain. Debussy himself apparently knew neither, having made only one day trip to Spain for a bullfight. Nevertheless, all three movements are full of Spanish influences, from instruments such as castanets, to Latin rhythms, to Moorish tunes. The DSO, again, have not historically excelled in French music, but as with the classical repertoire, they seem to have left the past behind and delivered a brilliant, virtuosic and very entertaining performance on Thursday night.

One caveat: the lack of risers at this weekend’s concerts makes it difficult for the orchestra audience to see — and often hear — anything other than strings. Balance is probably better in the balconies, but seemed to be lacking in some of the more expensive seats in the lobby.

The program will repeat at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. dallassymphony.org.

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