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A historic concert: Fabio Luisi leads Dallas Symphony, Metropolitan Opera musicians in dramatic Mahler First Symphony

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 5/4/2021 Scott Cantrell, The Dallas Morning News

Rarely is a concert hall as charged with electricity as the Meyerson Symphony Center was Friday night. Although this was announced as the first full-orchestra concert in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic shut down live performances in March 2020, the Fort Worth Symphony did a full-orchestra concert in February.

Led by DSO president and CEO Kim Noltemy, the DSO had invited 50 out-of-work musicians from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to join 48 DSO players and four area freelancers in a live performance — with a restricted, masked and socially distanced audience — of Mahler’s First Symphony. The concert, with a second sold-out performance set Saturday, was a benefit for the MET Orchestra Musicians Fund and the Dallas-Fort Worth Musicians COVID-19 Relief Fund. A free video stream will be available within a couple of weeks.

The conductor — and connection between the two orchestras — was DSO music director Fabio Luisi. Before Dallas, he spent seven critically acclaimed seasons at the Met, six as principal conductor.

Read on for details of the performance. But first, a bit of background.

After canceling concerts from March 2020, the DSO became a leader in creative adaptations to the pandemic. Musicians arranged chamber ensembles for outdoor performances. Chamber-music concerts were produced at the Meyerson for video streaming.

Since September the orchestra has presented a full schedule of concerts, but with music that can be performed by chamber-orchestra complements well spaced on an extended stage. Musicians get daily COVID-19 tests. Audiences in the 2,000-seat hall have been gradually increased to around 500. With new video equipment, video streams are subsequently available for purchase.

The Met has presented no performances since March 10, 2020, and its orchestra musicians have been furloughed without pay for nearly a year. Only six weeks ago were arrangements made for reduced pandemic pay, conditional on contract negotiations. Management is demanding pay cuts.

For all the expert musicians onstage, this wasn’t the tidiest Mahler First you’ll hear. Winds, in particular, sometimes had trouble sounding notes together, not a surprise for widely spaced musicians unaccustomed to playing together. In general, I wondered how a year without regular performances might impact players’ fingers, bow arms and embouchures.

As sumptuous as the Meyerson acoustics are for the audience, players onstage have always had trouble hearing one another. With a second stage extension, coordination challenges must have been multiplied by the great front-to-back spread of players. The four trumpeters and five trombonists played from the front row of the choral terrace above the stage.

No conductor is more elegantly fastidious than Luisi in conveying details of timing, timbre, attack and release, and overall shape of music. And he had a very individual conception of the symphony, with some quite daring stretchings of pace in the scherzo’s gentle central waltz and a dreamy episode for strings in the finale.

These were the sorts of liberties I imagined taken by the early 20th-century Dutch conductor and Mahler champion Willem Mengelberg. The second movement’s framing Ländler, a countrified waltz, was appropriately earthy. The third movement’s minor-mode “Frère Jacques” tune was introduced by the full bass section, rather than a soloist.

But there was dazzling excitement where called for, at the end with eight horns standing and blazing fanfares from trumpets and trombones. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard such a sonic extravaganza. The audience exploded in a long and loud ovation, and musicians honored Luisi with applause, waved bows and loud foot stomping.

Details

On Monday through Wednesday evenings, DSO and Met Opera musicians will collaborate in a series of six chamber-music concerts in area churches. For information on these and video offerings, check dallassymphony.org.

CORRECTION, May 1, 10:20 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that while the performance was announced as the first full-orchestra concert in the U.S. since the pandemic shut down live performances last year, the Fort Worth Symphony did a full-orchestra concert in February.

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