Bradley Hunter Welch, organ – Photo: Courtesy the artist

The Dallas Symphony returns to the Meyerson this weekend, with reduced capacity and safety protocols. Here’s a report on Friday’s concert.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Saturday, September 5, 2020


Dallas — Performing arts organizations are beginning to peek out from their COVID-19 bomb shelters. The pandemic was a tsunami that silenced live arts worldwide. But recently, although the virus still reigns supreme, cautious and reformatted concert season announcements are reappearing in my email inbox as such organizations figure out how to proceed.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra shuttered live performance back in March, and after a summer of some online performances, is cautiously reopening the Meyerson with limited seating. The Fall opening concert only used the brass and percussion sections augmented by the Lay Family Organ. Actually, it was a pre-season amuse-bouche because the classical  concert series will officially open next weekend with the newly minted Music Director Fabio Luisi and pianist Yefim Bronfman dishing up some Beethoven.

But Friday night’s brass, percussion and organ extravaganza was quite an experience. Separated from the entire orchestra, this concert allowed DSO dedicatees to appreciate two of the sections that makes up the orchestra’s collection of superb players. Further, with the stage denuded of the risers that the full ensemble requires, the sound was quite different — deeper and more resonant and burnished.

This was also a golden opportunity to hear the rarely used Lay Family Organ and admire the virtuosic artistry of DSO organist, Bradley Hunter Welch.

Because the audience was limited to 75, the 2,000-seat Meyerson felt empty, as though we were attending a rehearsal. Other precautions included limiting the concert to one-hour, no intermission (to reduce the chance of mingling), and mandatory masks.

The program had some patriotic overtones that would have been more appropriate for a Fourth of July Celebration. However, it was made up of such excellent music, mostly arranged but some originally written for the available forces, that no one cared.

Conductor Sarah Hicks – Photo: Minnesota Orchestra

Since this was the first concert of the season, it had to open with our national anthem. A couple of arrangers gave J. S. Smith’s controversial tune a dignified and original setting and the scant audience dutifully stood for its performance.

Adolphus Hailstork’s energetic American Fanfare followed. His music combines his African American roots with the European classical music he learned from composer David Diamond and a stint with the famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. His American Fanfare is an exciting roller-coaster ride through all of his influences and energized by mixed meter.

Speaking of fanfares, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is probably the best known of all of them. This was the most dramatic performance of the evening. DSO’s timpanist Brain Jones was impressive as he made the low-pitch drums speak with clarity without overpowering the ensemble.

Eugene Gigout, the French turn-of-the century organist and composer, was represented by his two best-known works. Welch tore into his virtuoso showpiece, Toccata in B minor, with impressive fingers and clever registrations. Gigout’s other work on the program, Grand Choeur et Dialogue, was a hit as arranged for organ and brass by trumpeter Rolf Smedvig. The original version is a dialogue between the different ranks on concert organs. Smedvig turned it into a dialogue between the brass ensemble and the organ. Both Gigout pieces were excellently played, revealing the intricacies of the composer’s style.

Michael Kamen’s “Dectet for Brass” was revelatory, demonstrating the composer’s abilities, which are harder to distinguish in his many film scores. The work started out with a beautiful horn solo, marvelously played by DSO’s Haley Hoops. Hoops set the mood of the work, which was adapted by the entire ensemble. It was a terrific performance.

Welsh tore into Charles Ives’ Variations on “America”, a satiric set of virtuosic variations for organ. Welsh made the most of it playing the work with its intended humor at the forefront. You had to love the bird twitter stop! Welsh was impressive all evening.

A less than satisfactory arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s

“The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “Great Gate of Kiev,” from his Pictures at an Exhibition. Familiarity with the original version for piano and Maurice Ravel’s technicolor orchestration, made this sparse arrangement sound slightly vacant. Adding a part for organ for the occasion would have been an improvement.

An arrangement of “La Rejouissance” and “Minuet/Trio,” a selection from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, as arranged for brass, added some welcome music from the Baroque era. Two Sousa marches, “The Washington Post March” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” ended the program with some zip. Special mention has to go to DSO’s tubaist Matthew Good, who played the famous piccolo descant on his usually more lumbering instrument with impressive pizzazz.

Sarah Hicks conducted. I had trouble figuring out what she was doing, as did the musicians, which caused sloppy playing, unregulated dynamics, and an occasional dissolution of ensemble.

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