This weekend the musicians of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra are being led by a familiar figure at the podium. Andrew Litton, the DSO's Music Director from 1994 to 2006, returns to the Meyerson to conduct a program featuring Igor Stravinsky's ballet scores.
The Firebird was Stravinsky's breakout hit. Composed just over a century ago as a ballet score, the composer smartly took the original version and paired it down for the concert hall. That version is now the standard typically performed by symphony orchestras. This weekend, however, Litton and the DSO give us a rare chance to hear the original 1910 ballet score in its entirety. Choosing this longer version could have been a mistake. Surely Stravinsky knew best, right? Who wants to hear all of that ballet music with no ballet?
But last night's performance of The Firebird was anything but boring. With no actual dancing on stage, magical firebirds and exotic princes had to live in the imagination. Like the soundtrack to a fantasy novel, whimsical scenes brewed effortlessly as the music unfolded, opening with the evocative sounds of hushed low strings and flirtatious harps then morphing into a sonic wonderland of meandering woodwinds and horn blasts.
Woodwinds and brass have to be great in Stravinsky's music, and last night both sections shone during The Firebird. The strings were equally stellar, providing soothing warmth as well as some beautifully crafted solos. Andrew Litton clearly has an affinity for Stravinsky's sonic landscape and he and the orchestra brought it to life with enthusiasm.
The first half of this weekend's program opens with a less familiar Stravinsky ballet score; the Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss has a neoromantic sound. Written during a period in Stravinsky's career when he had already achieved fame for ballets like The Rite of Spring and The Firebird, this is music that melds 19th-century Russian romanticism with 20th-century innovation. The DSO needs to program more music like this. It could have been performed with more balance -- last night some sections couldn't shine because all tried to be heard at once, but overall it was great to hear this side of Stravinsky's compositional personality.
The best part of any concerto should be the soloist, and Karen Gomyo's performance in Camille Saint-Saëns' Concerto No. 3 in B Minor last night was captivating. Playing on a Stradivarius violin with a vibrant, nimble sound, she played a beautifully fluttering solo.
It's impossible to conclude a discussion of this weekend's program without mentioning the DSO's bizarre marketing strategy for this concert series. Apart from a coincidence in name, Stravinsky's Firebird has as little to do with a muscle car as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony does with a St. Bernard puppy.
It seems like the DSO is trying to sex things up a bit this season with their marketing, but they are doing it in a really unappealing and obvious way. Take for example the photo they're using for Ravel's Bolero. Sure, the piece is basically one big climax, but a naked chest on a symphony program makes me uncomfortable.
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I'm no prude, but the likelihood that you'll be sitting next to an octogenarian during the concert is high, and nobody wants to think about sex around their grandma.
Some of this music actually is muscular, sexy and provocative, but not in a rip-your-shirt-off way, and advertizing it as such takes away from the allure.
To make matters worse, the orchestra sent out a press release yesterday that an actual 1968 Pontiac Firebird will be parked in front of the Meyerson all weekend. There's got to be a better way.