Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony, musicians from the Metropolitan Opera in the dramatic Mahler First Symphony
Rarely is a concert hall as charged with electricity as the Meyerson Symphony Center was on Friday night. Although it was heralded as the first live orchestral concert in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic interrupted performances in March 2020, the Fort Worth Symphony gave a full orchestral concert in February.
Led by DSO President and CEO Kim Noltemy, DSO invited 50 unemployed musicians from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to join 48 DSO players and four local freelancers in a live performance – with an audience restrained, masked and socially distant – from Mahler’s First Symphony. The concert, with a second sold-out performance on Saturday, was a boon for the MET Orchestra Musicians Fund and the Dallas-Fort Worth Musicians COVID-19 Relief Fund. A free video stream will be available in a few weeks.
The conductor – and the link between the two orchestras – was DSO’s musical director Fabio Luisi. Prior to Dallas, he spent seven critically acclaimed seasons at the Met, including six as a Principal Conductor.
Read on for more details on the performance. But first, a little background.
After canceling concerts from March 2020, the DSO has become a leader in creative adaptations to the pandemic. The musicians organized chamber ensembles for outdoor performances. Chamber music concerts were produced at the Meyerson for video streaming.
Since September, the orchestra has presented a full concert program, but with music that can be interpreted by well-spaced chamber orchestral complements over an extended stage. Musicians undergo daily COVID-19 tests. The audience for the 2,000-seat auditorium has gradually grown to around 500 people. Thanks to the new video equipment, video streams are then available for purchase.
The Met has not had any performances since March 10, 2020 and his orchestral musicians were fired without pay for almost a year. Just six weeks ago, steps were taken to cut wages in the event of a pandemic, subject to contract negotiations. Management is asking for salary cuts.
For all the expert musicians on stage, this was not the ugliest Mahler First you’ll hear. Winds, in particular, sometimes had a hard time making notes sound together, which came as no surprise to musicians widely spaced and unaccustomed to playing together. In general, I wondered how a year without consistent performances could impact players’ fingers, arms, and mouthpieces.
As sumptuous as Meyerson’s acoustics are to audiences, players on stage have always struggled to get along. With a second expansion stage, the coordination challenges must have been multiplied by the large distribution of players back and forth. The four trumpeters and the five trombonists played from the first row of the choir terrace above the stage.
No conductor is more elegantly demanding than Luisi in conveying the details of timing, timbre, attack and release, and general form of music. And he had a very individual take on the symphony, with some pretty daring stretches in the scherzo’s sweet central waltz and a strings dream episode in the finale.
It was the kind of liberties I imagined taken by the early 20th century Dutch conductor and Mahler champion Willem Mengelberg. The framing of the second movement Ländler, a country waltz, was suitably earthy. The third movement aria “Frère Jacques” in minor mode was introduced by the full bass section, rather than by a soloist.
But there was searing excitement where it was needed, at the end with eight standing horns and blazing bands of trumpets and trombones. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard such sonic extravaganza. The audience exploded into a long, loud ovation, and the musicians honored Luisi with loud applause, salutes and kicks.
From Monday to Wednesday evening, musicians from DSO and Met Opera will collaborate on a series of six chamber music concerts in churches across the region. For more information on these and video offers, see dallassymphony.org.
CORRECTION, May 1, 10:20 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that although the performance was heralded as the first live orchestral concert in the United States since the pandemic ceased live performances last year, the Fort Worth Symphony gave a concert with orchestra in February.