Classical Music

Review: At the Dallas Symphony, Two Young Pianists and Two Very Different Takes on Romantic Piano Music

Last night a tall, skinny teenager with an unruly mop of straw-blonde hair reminded Dallas Symphony audience members that not all millennials are created equal. Jan Lisiecki celebrated his 19th birthday last Sunday, and while I'm sure he knows his way around a smart-phone as well as any other kid born in the '90s, his performance of Chopin's first piano concerto last night at the Meyerson Symphony Center was one of the most mature renditions of the piece I've heard.

Sporting adorably over-shined shoes and an over-sized bow tie, Lisiecki was mesmerizing to watch as he spun one chromatic blur of notes after another from his right hand. Chopin's first piano concerto is a thorny one, with fewer big, memorable orchestral moments than the Rachmaninoff concerto featured on last week's DSO program. It's easy for pianists to get bogged down in this piece, but last night Lisiecki and Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa propelled it forward with rhythmic drive and impeccably planned and coordinated rubatos.

During the first movement, Lisiecki's tone bordered on harsh and bass notes lacked warmth. This was partially because he chose a piano with a bright sound, a choice that proved to be the right one as the concerto progressed. In the slow movement, a mesmerizing, liquid tone emerged from the upper registers and during percussive, rhythmically driven sections, the piano popped against the backdrop of strings.

This weekend's DSO program is an interesting one. Brahms' Tragic Overture is the perfect opener, instantly drawing audiences in with bold, welcoming sounds. After intermission, Dvorak's imaginative "Water Goblin" and Janacek's quirky, brass-driven "Sinfonietta" provide an entertaining and sonically captivating 40 minutes of music.

So much of what goes into a great night of orchestral music has to do with programming. I was reminded last night how important a good opener is. Brahms' overture worked so well to set the mood for the concert, giving everyone in the room a chance to mentally let go of nagging work emails and downtown parking woes and settle in to a quiet listening space.

Last weekend, a poorly chosen opener had the opposite effect. While the orchestra's performance of Shostakovich's "Five Fragments" was perfectly minimalistic and fastidiously controlled, the room was still getting settled when it started. Coughing, shuffling programs and creaking seats were distracting and nobody seemed ready to give the kind of careful attention the piece deserved. When you're rushing to a concert after a busy day, you need a palette cleanser before you can appreciate something as subtle as "Fragments."

Ukranian pianist Anna Fedorova, yet another child of the '90s, followed up the awkwardly placed "Fragments" last weekend with an overly dramatic rendition of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. Fedorova is one of those arm-flailing pianists who overemphasizes every phrase with giant arm gestures. Her sense of rubato -- that push and pull of tempo that can be so moving when it is done well - was impossibly wild last weekend. The result was a meandering performance that baffled the orchestra and seemed interminable. Last week's second half was better than the first, but Copland's third symphony was another misplaced, disjointed programming choice.

Next weekend's Baroque-driven program will provide regular concert-goers with a much needed break from the dramatic, romantic 19th-century focus of this weekend and last. But if you have a weakness for romantic piano music, don't miss Lisieki's take on Chopin this weekend. The kid's got it.