“A turbulent Russian concerto grosso spoke to conflicted feelings
in Friday’s DSO ReMix concert” (January 20, 2017)
One could argue that Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 2 was just the piece for the profoundly unsettled, conflicted national mood Friday night. Again and again, the solo violin and cello attempt to represent order, to spin out baroque figurations and weave hints of a melody suggestive of “Silent night.” But after an initial parody of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, the orchestra repeatedly stirs up noisy, turbulent dissonance. Proprieties and pleasantries must battle with onslaughts of vulgar marches and fanfares and sheer noise.
The Schnittke was the centerpiece of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s more intimate and less formal ReMix concert at the Dallas City Performance Hall. At 35 minutes, in four nonstop movements, it was certainly one of the most challenging pieces of music heard around here anytime recently. The guest conductor was Courtney Lewis, a Northern Ireland native now music director of the Jacksonville (Florida) Symphony. His to-the-point introduction to the Schnittke, spoken in a crisp British accent, was exactly what such things should be but rarely are.
Schnittke (1934-1998), the most prominent Russian composer after Shostakovich, early on evolved a signature polystylism. The Concerto Grosso No. 2, from 1982, displays a characteristic mix of simple and complex, retro and avant-garde, high and low musical styles; it’s music Charles Ives might have composed if he’d been born 60 years later in Russia. The orchestra includes both harpsichord (synthesizer in this case) and electric bass guitar, as well as an array of tuned and untuned percussion; both strings and timpani execute woozy pitch slides.
Violinist Maria Schleuning and cellist Jolyon Pegis, two DSO musicians with considerable modern-music experience in the Voices of Change ensemble, played brilliantly–no small accomplishment–but also, when called for, subtly. The orchestra whipped up the requisite commotions. An audience conspicuously younger than at Meyerson Symphony Center concerts applauded enthusiastically.
The Schnittke had a logical companion in the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, an earlier 20th-century Russian piece also looking back at 18th-century music. Here, though, the allusions are affectionate rather than cynical, and more to Haydn than to Bach. It’s music tuneful and toe-tapping and utterly charming.
In a 750-seat hall, as opposed to the Meyerson’s 2,000, and with strings somewhat reduced from norms at the Meyerson, winds were more prominent than usual. With energetic conducting from Lewis, they smartly dispatched their duties, as did the strings, although the latter scrambled to keep up with an unduly frantic tempo in the finale. And both the third and fourth movements wanted a lighter touch. The program, performed without intermission, opened with a spirited account of Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture.
Scott Cantrell, former classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News, has also written for The New York Times and numerous music magazines.