Review: Dallas Symphony electrifies in ‘Rite of Spring,’ premieres Cello Concerto
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
April 21, 2023
Thursday night’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert was a veritable riot of sonic color and texture.
The centerpiece was the world premiere of American composer Katherine Balch’s elaborately textured Whisper Concerto, for cello and orchestra. Also on the program, led by Principal Guest Conductor Gemma New, were Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances — two works which shared the program at the Rite’s literally riotous 1913 premiere.
In her early 30s, with a doctorate from Columbia University, Balch is a visiting composition professor at Yale. The title of her Whisper Concerto, a co-commission by the DSO, the Staatstheater Darmstadt in Germany and England’s BBC Three, alludes to a hushed cadenza in the 1966 Cello Concerto of the late Hungarian composer György Ligeti.
Name your instrumental special effect, and it’s somewhere in this three-movement, 25-minute score. Indeed, a whole page explains the special techniques. A piano is altered in tuning and timbre by various objects clamped to strings or jammed between them. Strings sometime play microtones, pitches between “normal” notes, as well as pitch slides and wispy harmonics. The solo cellist sometimes lays aside the bow to tap strings with a short stick.
So elaborate is all the gimmicky, though, that you’d notice only a little of it unless you’d studied a score and followed it in performance (as I did in a Thursday morning rehearsal). Indeed, one wonders if it’s worth loading a score with so many effects that are essentially inaudible. Ultimately, after all the nervous activity, the concerto seems to strive for the calm chorale that gradually surfaces in the finale.
Slightly amplified, the solo cello is less a “star,” less prominent than in most concertos, than an energetic force within the complex textures. The writing is of breathtaking virtuosity, with desperate scurries, big leaps, double stops (more than one pitch played at once), fierce pluckings and slides.
Zlatomir Fung, a young American cellist of Bulgarian and Chinese heritage, with first prizes in the Tchaikovsky and other major competitions, dispatched fearsome challenges with brilliance. With direction clear and focused, less athletic than in past performances, New and the orchestra made a strong case for the piece. Whether it will have legs remains to be seen, but there was a standing ovation.
The Rite challenged its first audience — not to mention the orchestra and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dancers. Its earthy primitivism, with lurching rhythms, barbaric yawps and garish shrieks, is news that has stayed news, to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase. But it’s long since been standard rep even for conservatory orchestras, and certainly for the DSO.
Conducting energetically in the Rite, New presided over an electrifying performance. Special praise goes to solos from Ted Soluri (that spooky opening bassoon croon), Stephen Ahearn (playing the high E-flat clarinet) and David Matthews (English horn). And there were stirring sounds from the eight horns (five of them subs). I did wish, though, that supertitles had identified the dramatic scenes the music was composed to accompany.
Both here and in the rousing account of the Polovtsian Dances, from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the immediacy and sonorous envelopment of the Meyerson Symphony Center acoustics made for aural thrills impossible from the finest stereo system.
Read the full review here.