Dallas Symphony Orchestra – «Alexander Nevsky»
28 November 2009 | Franz Felicius
Sounds that kept provoking smells and colors: Thursday was synesthesia night at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Prokofiev’s cantata based on his score for the film Alexander Nevsky took pride of place on conductor Jaap van Zweden’s enterprising program. Before intermission, he typically plugged gaps in the orchestra’s repertoire.
Wolfgang Rihm currently bears the flag for German modernism and post-modernism. Memoria marked his Dallas Symphony debut – an American premiere and indeed only the third performance of the work anywhere. Like Stravinsky’s late Requiem Canticles, it offers shards of a formal lamentation – in this case for chorus, two soloists and an odd assortment of orchestral personnel. The chorus sometimes hummed and shouted. Offstage batteries of percussion made a furious clamor. I loved the work’s quirky solemnity, and the audience gave it a surprisingly enthusiastic welcome.
One of the orchestra’s own stars, Christopher Adkins, then got his moment in the sun with Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major. Lost until 1961, the piece is one of the few Haydn concertos that suggest his preeminence as a composer. Thank goodness van Zweden is making up for all the years the Dallas Symphony neglected his genius.
The sweet richness of Adkins’ tone, closely matched by the orchestral strings, evoked vocabulary you’d associate with tasting dessert wines: I detected overtones of honey, vanilla and tobacco. The cellist’s extended family has been active on the local early music scene, so I was surprised by the frankly romantic, though not self-indulgent, approach here.
The great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was fulfilling a commission to prepare the Soviet public for the approaching World War II in Alexander Nevsky. Prokofiev’s soundtrack is inseparable from the images of medieval knights – good Russians, bad Germans – who battle onscreen. The cantata the composer arranged from the score made a great pairing with Rihm’s memorial to the dead of that same war.
Van Zweden seemed to be hurling gobs of paint onto a mighty canvas as he led the piece. The winds produced pungent, saturated colors, underpinned by tubas and contrabassoon, while the pitched percussion overlaid the picture with enamel splashes. Violins shaped delicate transitions between the climaxes piled on climaxes.
The huge Dallas Symphony Chorus blazed brightly when individual sections could revel in exposed lines. All together, the sound could be muddy. Prepared by interim director Terry Price, the chorus managed a convincing attempt at the language, even if the basses lacked that sepulchral low end of their Russian counterparts. Mezzo Gigi Velasco-Mitchell proved a wonderful alternative to the beefy Slavic contraltos we usually hear in the solo. Her singing was as elegant as it was earthy, confirming the excellent impression she (and treble Bryan Leines) had made in the Rihm.