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With violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, Fabio Luisi led a Dallas Symphony gala with some surprises

The concert included John Williams’ two-month old Violin Concerto No. 2, an emotionally complex work that seemed quite timely.

How do you throw a gala during a worldwide pandemic still killing people? How do you compose a violin concerto in such circumstances?

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra answered both questions Saturday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center, not always predictably. Deliberately limited because of COVID, attendance at both the gala concert and pre-performance dinner was about half that of previous years. Women seemed to sport fewer eye-popping gowns. Mine was not the only tux that seemed to have “shrunk” in the two years since the last gala. But the audience was visibly and audibly excited to be there.

The concert was hardly gala business-as-usual, although music director Fabio Luisi certainly showed off the orchestra in the Strauss Don Juan that opened the program. There was a star soloist in violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, although she’s less-known in this country than in Europe and on recordings. (Amazingly, this was her first DSO appearance.) Instead of a predictable showpiece, she played a hefty concerto only two months old that didn’t immediately give up its secrets.

It was however the work of one of today’s most famous composers. If John Williams is best known for his brilliant film scores, he has also produced major concert works. He has also worked with Mutter on a number of projects, and his Violin Concerto No. 2 was composed for, and premiered by, her last July, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Europe was in turmoil when Haydn titled one of his masses in angustiis — in time of trouble. Has Williams given us a COVID concerto?

Imaging composers’ inspirations is risky business. But at least on first hearing this new concerto seems very much a work for our times, shifting restlessly among dreamy, untethered musings for the violin, anxious jitters and angry orchestral outbursts. An important harp part tries to soothe anxieties; strings sometimes conjure up hushed, disembodied clouds of support.

The four-movement structure is hardly evident as such, but Williams is a master of sonic drama and orchestral nuance. There’s much of interest here, with complex and often dissonant harmonies and rhythmic ambiguities. At 35 minutes’ duration, does it coalesce into a convincing whole? Would it be better with some tightening? Those questions did occur.

Violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, directed by Fabio Luisi, perform at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, TX, on Sep. 25, 2021.
Violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, directed by Fabio Luisi, perform at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, TX, on Sep. 25, 2021. (Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

But it’s hard to imagine a more committed performance than we heard Saturday night. From those out-of-body musings to jagged double-stops in several cadenzas, Mutter displayed awesome technical command. Her generous tone had just the right bit of grain when it counted. With unfailingly clear and expressive direction from Luisi, the orchestra served up every twist and turn, every nuance, with assurance. Principal harpist Emily Levin lent quiet comfort.

The Strauss, too, was brilliantly played. Luisi is a master of such theatrical fare, and the orchestra delivered dazzling frenzies, but also tender seductions. Principal oboist Erin Hannigan spun out solos of melting beauty.

There was quite a surprise after the concerto when the 89-year-old Williams appeared onstage to share in the applause. He then mounted the podium and led Mutter and the orchestra in “Nice To Be Around,” from his score for the 1973 movie Cinderella Liberty. It was a touching end to a memorable evening.

Details

A video stream of the concert will be available Oct. 5 at dallassymphony.com. $10, or $125 for a streaming season pass. 214-849-4376.

In This Story

Fabio Luisi

  • Music director, Dallas Symphony Orchestra
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Scott Cantrell, Special Contributor. Scott Cantrell was The News' classical music critic and continues to cover the beat as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The News is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The News makes all editorial decisions.

artslife@dallasnews.com
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