Conductor James Gaffigan and Concert Pianist Andre Watts Performed with Warmth in the Cold


Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director Jaap van Zweden was on the road this weekend making his debut with the New York Philharmonic (New York Times review of Thursday's concert in Avery Fisher Hall here).
Taking van Zweden's place at the podium in Dallas Thursday through Sunday was the much-acclaimed young American conductor James Gaffigan.

Gaffigan lead the DSO through a somewhat atypical program featuring two composers of similar style - Norwegian composer Edward Grieg, and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. While Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor is a standard in the concert repertoire, all three of the other works on the weekend's program are less familiar to audiences. Grieg and Sibelius, both late romantic era composers, are known for incorporating nationalistic elements in their compositions. Sibelius' music in particular is often described as cerebral and evocative of the frigid Finnish climate of his homeland. Under the baton of Gaffigan, however, works by Sibelius and Grieg came off with warmth.

Watts performed effortlessly, even in tux and tails.
Watts performed effortlessly, even in tux and tails.
Image courtesy of Indiana University

Getting Warmed Up

The concert opened with Sibelius' Rakastava, Op. 14, a set of three pieces for strings and percussion. This piece is based on a Finnish poem (Elias Lönnrot's Kanteletar, 1840) that incorporates native legends and folk poetry. Sibelius seems to have had a personal affection for this work, composing several choral versions of the poem before finally landing on this string-based setting in 1911. Before the performance, Gaffigan spoke to the audience about the history of the work and described the piece as one of Sibelius' more "tender and human" offerings. His introduction primed audiences for the touching sounds of the strings in Rakastava's delicately moving first movement, The Lover. During this piece and throughout the evening, the musicians of the DSO were incredibly responsive to Gaffigan, whose sensitivity and artistry were consistently compelling. Rakastava proved a perfect opening for this concert, warming the audience up for Grieg's more overtly passionate Piano Concerto in A Minor.

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And Now We're Hot

Pianist Andre Watts, born in Germany to a father who was an African American soldier and a mother who was a Hungarian pianist, has an innate skill and virtuosity at the keyboard. His career took off at 16 when he made his New York Philharmonic debut at the personal request of Leonard Bernstein. Now in his 60s, Mr. Watts is a seasoned pianist and a veteran on the concert circuit. On Saturday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center, he appeared on stage with characteristic casual elegance, making a suit and tails seem like the most comfortable of wardrobe choices.

During the opening themes of the piano concerto, Watts seemed to take a back seat to Gaffigan and the DSO, who highlighted Grieg's gorgeous orchestral writing with energy and passion. Watts' demeanor was sophisticated and cool and his approach to this piece reserved at times. He played with the kind of ease that only comes from living with and performing a piece for decades. This is not to say he sat back and phoned in his performance. On the contrary, hearing Watts perform this piece was like listening in on a conversation between the pianist and a dear old friend. It was moving to hear him effortlessly play passages from a work he knows so deeply. By the time he reached the showy cadenza at the end of the first movement, he had settled into the sweet spot of the piano and balance issues with the orchestra had been worked out. Watts carried the second movement with elegantly tossed off phrases and a moving sensitivity enhanced by somewhat unexpected tempo choices.

In the final movement, orchestra and pianist seemed to find their groove together, providing the audience with an energetic and sumptuous finale. The audience responded to orchestra and pianist with well-deserved enthusiasm.

After intermission, the orchestra again warmed up our ears with a short, four-movement orchestral piece. Grieg's Lyric Suite, Op. 54 is a set of pieces that were originally written for solo piano, but translate beautifully as orchestral works that evoke traditional Norwegian dances and images of the countryside. Gaffigan again picked up the microphone before the final piece, Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105. His introduction was inspiring in its praise of the work and he pointed out several key melodies and themes, enhancing the listener's depth of appreciation for it. Unusual in that it has one large movement rather than the typical four, this work can be a bit problematic for an orchestra because of its choppy form.

Gaffigan clearly has an affinity for the work and the performance was convincing in its execution of Sibelius' sweeping soundscapes and poignant melodic effects. Together, Gaffigan and the DSO successfully brought fire and passion to music typically considered somewhat cold in its aesthetic.

The DSO's next classical series concert is April 26-29 and features Jaap van Zweden conducting Bruckner's monumental Symphony No. 8. For tickets and more information, visit the DSO's website.

And one more thing, because it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood...

If Andre Watts' name sounds familiar but you can't quite place it, perhaps one of his appearances on Mr. Rogers is lurking in the recesses of your memory. Here's a clip to take you back, as well as a charming performance of Schubert's Moments Musicaux Op. 94 No. 3.

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