In its marketing materials for this week’s program, the Dallas Symphony focused its advertising on Beethoven’s First, and Thursday night the orchestra gave that work a charming performance. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, who specializes in Baroque and early Classical music, brought a playful, bubbly personality to the piece. The strings shimmered and the woodwinds were clean and bright. It was certainly not the most innovative, riveting, or precise performance of a Beethoven symphony I’ve heard from this orchestra, but it was delightful nonetheless.
The most interesting piece on this week’s program appears before intermission, when the considerable talents of David Cooper, the DSO’s own principal horn, and guest tenor Nicholas Phan are on full display in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31. Britten’s Serenade, composed against the backdrop of World War II, presents some of the composer’s favorite poems by his fellow countrymen: Keats, Tennyson, Blake, as well as lesser known Elizabethan and medieval poets are represented. The music itself is poetic: the horn mournful and affective, Phan’s voice pristine and mesmerizing, and the strings ever-present, complimenting the soloists with a silvery tone.
Britten opens and closes his Serenade with unaccompanied horn solos. Last night, the mellow sounds of Cooper’s instrument in the Meyerson’s cavernous space were spellbinding. So often in symphonic music the horn performs a supportive role or launches its melodies over a noisy orchestra. Here, Britten gives us the opportunity to meditate on the horn’s timbre uninterrupted. If you’re not already a fan of this instrument’s evocative resonance, you will be after this concert.
Tenor Nicholas Phan has a beautiful voice and he is also a fantastic interpreter of text. Last night he didn’t just sing words, he delved into the essence of each poem and communicated its imagery and tone clearly. His thoughtful interpretations made this performance a memorable one. In Tennyson’s “Nocturne,” Phan sings about bugles blowing, echoes answering, and sound “dying, dying, dying” over “purple glens.” As he sings these lines, Cooper illustrates the scenes with his horn. It’s hard to imagine a better combination of sounds and notes to convey this poem. The “Elegy,” by Blake, and “Dirge,” by an anonymous 15th-century poet, are even darker in tone, but equally as effective.
Preceding the Britten, McGegan led a small group of strings and winds in a performance of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major. The Meyerson is a great hall for many different styles of music, but small, Baroque-size ensembles tend to get lost in the space. The sound just can’t fill the room, and the result is a feeling of distance rather than intimacy, which makes it hard to fully engage and connect with the music. That being said, co-concertmaster Nathan Olson and principal oboist Erin Hannigan played beautifully as soloists in last night’s performance. Both last weekend at the orchestra’s ReMix concert and during this piece, I was struck by the way Olson conveys a great deal of artistry without making a big show of it. He never overdoes things, but is always making beautiful sounds that are worth attention. Hannigan, too, is a consistently articulate and artistic musician. Between the Bach and the Britten, three of the DSO’s musicians are featured as soloists in this program. It’s a reminder that while it’s wonderful to hear the many guest artists that come across the Meyerson’s stage week after week, this orchestra always has a wealth of talent in its midst.