Concert Review: Early Whimsy Gives Way to Brilliant Ravel, Chopin, and Stravinsky

Concertmaster Nathan Olson drew laughter and applause by stepping onstage wearing a bright red Texas Rangers cap Thursday night at the beginning of the Dallas Symphony’s concert at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center; this non-musical whimsy was the beginning of what would quickly become an evening of remarkable artistry under the baton of guest conductor Hannu Lintu.

Finnish-born Lintu, who exudes a wiry, almost eccentric presence, jolted any audience member whose attention might have been on baseball back to the concert hall with a quick, meticulously detailed and adamantly non-sentimental take on Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel’s always amazing timbrel and harmonic gestures took on a new vividness. Lintu’s reading was never “pretty,” but almost always beautiful. The closing moments of the Menuet, the third movement of this four-movement suite, provided a particularly impressive demonstration of Lintu’s sense of tempo and timing.

(Unfortunately, because of the prevalent belief among the people in charge that Friday concert goers want a short concert, the Ravel work won’t be on Friday night’s repeat of the concert. Too bad.)

Next on the agenda, Spanish-born Joaquin Achucarro, a member of the piano faculty at SMU, joined Lintu for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, a work in which flashes of genius and inspiration on the part of the composer are constantly undermined by weak structural choices. When he wrote this work, 20-year-old Chopin had not yet achieved the mastery of architecture that would characterize his later masterpieces. Here, he was contented to relegate the orchestra to an accompanying status, and to squeeze his irrepressible lyricism and passion into boxes that just don’t fit.

Lintu, however, again applied his impeccable sense of timing to create appropriate moments of mystery and darkness, while Achucarro spun out the relentless, almost intoxicating passage work.

The best of the evening came after intermission with the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s  Petroushka, a work that encapsulates, with a bold blend of humor, irony, dissonance, and grandeur, the turmoil and energy of the first half of the twentieth century. Lintu created a breathtaking, purely musical suspense in the final sections, drawing on Stravinsky’s inspiration and the Dallas Symphony’s musical virtuosity to jolt the listener to the bones. (Pianist Anastasia Markina, by the way, barely visible at the side of the stage, delivered the excruciatingly difficult piano part impressively.) This was the sort of experience, in which the listener could not just hear the music but feel it, that reminds us why, in the age of almost miraculous electronic recording technology,  we still need live orchestral music.