Gregory Sullivan Isaacs | 5 FEB 2024
In all my years of concert-going, nothing can compare to what happened on Thursday evening at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s all-Sibelius performance.
Violinist Alexi Kenney was within a minute of finishing a glorious, definitive, and memorable performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto when the fire alarm went off. Strobing lights and a stentorian recorded voice ordered us to vacate the hall. It took a moment for the mesmerized audience even to realize what was happening. Just one more minute would have allowed Kenney to finish. Conductor Sir Donald Runnicles hugged the violinist, and both laughed at the event.
Why the “oh well” response, which was not duplicated in the stunned audience? Later, it was revealed that a similar false alarm, due to a “wiring problem,” occurred during the final rehearsal. If that is true, the fault lies directly at the feet of the Meyerson Symphony Center.
But what to do? Would it have been better to cancel the concert, although that would have created a huge problem in itself? Why allow such a disruptive thing to happen for a second time? On the other hand, we would have been more disappointed if we were caught in a five-alarm blaze. After a single firetruck arrived and left, most of the already-scant audience returned to our seats.
Kenney’s performance, reinforced by Runnicles’ sensitive collaboration, was simply magnificent. In a world overfilled with precocious and technically amazing young instrumentalists (on all instruments), Kenney rises above them because of his superb musicianship and interpretive abilities.
Every repeated phrase received a different take on the music, which is so very rare to hear. Kenney made this happen with a collection of devices: mastery of the bow, changing strings for a different sonority, employing flexible rubato, making slight changes in dynamics, widely colored vibrato and trills, and guiding the direction of each phrase to the concerto’s last notes. This is why we were so shocked and dismayed when the performance suddenly truncated just moments before its final arrival. Egads!
The program opened with the composer’s slight orchestral tone poem, En Saga Op. 9. Originally written in 1892, Sibelius reworked it three times, both in 1902. After he completed the last of those revisions, he didn’t rework it further.
From the very opening measures, it is instantly recognizable as a work by Sibelius. This is because it is an oft-repeated trademark opening gesture: a snapshot of the Finnish landscape in the early morning when the fog is beginning to lift. The rugged and vacant vista is starting to come into focus like a veil lifting. We will reencounter this at the beginning of the violin concerto and with the lonesome horns that launch the fifth symphony.
A “Saga” usually implies a lengthy story concerning a hero’s valiant deeds of yesteryear. However, Sibelius disenthralls us of hunting for such a program by flatly stating that there wasn’t such a tale embedded in this composition. That hasn’t stopped various musicians and musicologists from inventing multiple versions for themselves.
It is understandable because even though the music is all derived from the opening, it is segmented in such a way as to imply different scenarios as the piece progresses. Runnicles delivered a fine performance that allowed our minds to wander to valiant knights and damsels in distress.
When we returned, it was difficult for both the audience and the players to get back into the mood for the performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. A ragged opening didn’t help. But eventually, Runnicles got the engine going, and the composer’s hypnotic and harmonic ostinato brought the performance to an exciting close. Unfortunately, he got there ahead of himself dynamically. That left little remaining headroom for a fortissimo to create the dramatic series of chords that end the symphony. But this is a small quibble in light of the bizarre events of the evening. ■
- Dallas Symphony Orchestra: dallassymphony.org
- Donald Runnicles: donaldrunnicles.org
- Alexi Kenney: alexikenney.com