Dallas Symphony Disappoints With Stale Program

Interesting and beautiful moments overshadowed in a disappointingly one-dimensional concert by the DSO under guest conductor Lawrence Foster.

Numerous interesting and beautiful moments—including a memorably fine concerto performance by co-concertmaster Alexander Kerr—unfortunately added up to a disappointingly one-dimensional concert by the Dallas Symphony under guest conductor Lawrence Foster Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center.

The fault lay ultimately in the repertoire of the evening. First, while two of the three works on the program were interesting and merit a place in symphonic concerts, none of the three were particularly innovative or profound—and a concert by a major orchestra should contain at least one of those two elements.

Second, the program also lacked stylistic contrast. While an all-romantic program can and often does work well, in this case, the momentum built in the first half had dissipated in a sense of bland sameness by evening’s end, largely because of a lack of variety.

Guest conductor Lawrence Foster led the Dallas Symphony through a disappointingly one-dimensional concert.
Guest conductor Lawrence Foster.

Conductor Foster and the orchestra opened quite promisingly with early twentieth-century Romanian composer George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 2; American-born Foster, whose parents were immigrants from Romania, takes a special interest in the music of his parents’ homeland, and advocated this often striking work handsomely. The arresting opening phrase for unison strings provided an ear-catching curtain-raising moment, with a likewise surprising moment near the end when, keeping with the nationalist inspiration of the work, a solo viola breaks into a lively little fiddle tune (neatly delivered by principal violist Ellen Rose from the back of the orchestra). Although the music of Enescu has all but disappeared from the concert hall, this work contains intriguing juxtapositions of folk elements and high romantic sophistication, creating a dreamlike, sometimes pleasantly illogical quality reminiscent of similar moments in the music of Mahler.

After the Enescu, violinist Kerr moved into the soloist’s spot with Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto of 1939. Much of Barber’s music, including this concerto, has won a firm place in the repertoire, with its combination of classic European nostalgia tinged with an American accent and breadth of spirit—and, in this case, a tightly conceived and skillfully executed structure. Kerr, conductor Foster, and the orchestra successfully captured the beautiful intimacies and the sweeping, Brahmsian climaxes of the piece, with Kerr providing a serene, nicely controlled reading of the solo part.

The marks of potential genius are all over the opening sections of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, which made up the second half of the concert. Subtitled “Winter Dreams,” this work, in its first two movements, not only a presents a plethora of appealing melodic material and wonderful orchestral colors, but manages to live up to the evocative title with a sense of wintry chill and cold-weather adrenaline. By the time the finale rolled around, however, young Tchaikovsky had run out of steam, and was simply filling in the blanks with alternating marches and fugues, finally faltering, in the final moments, into a grandiosity resembling a Sousa march. This one is probably better left on the shelf.

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