July 7, 2006

Dallas holds true to Vail traditions

By Marc Shulgold, Rocky Mountain News

With the Dallas Symphony occupying the stage of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheatre, Andrew Litton hopped onto the podium Friday and gazed out at a lawnful of soaked listeners crowding under umbrellas.

"As I've quipped over the past eight years we've been here, we are the 'raining' orchestra in the Vail Valley. If you want it to rain, just invite us to play," he re-quipped.

Indeed, it's been eight occasionally damp summers for the Dallas players at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival - a long and successful relationship that comes to an end this month.

On Friday, Litton and friends kicked off their final trip to Vail, to be succeeded next summer by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra. By coincidence, this year also witnessed the end of Litton's tenure as music director in Dallas.

Still, there was no way the Texans were going to let anyone or anything rain on their parade Friday evening. To begin their seven-concert engagement, Litton conducted a crowd-pleasing program that paid homage to music's two most honored birthday boys: Mozart (who turned 250) and Shostakovich (celebrating 100).

There was nothing to dislike in the DSO's readings of the former's 40th Symphony and the latter's Piano Concerto No. 1 - yet the loudest cheers, and the most vital playing, came with the concluding Dvorak Symphony No. 7.

Here, Litton energized his players with committed leadership, never letting the pace slacken, never losing his grip on the music's many twists and turns.

The Scherzo in particular attained a lilt that captured its effervescent dance spirit. The Finale bristled with an immediacy that drew whoops from the audience after the conclusion.

Almost as big a hit with the rain-drenched crowd was the wild-and-wacky Shostakovich concerto. But then, you'd expect that with the always-dependable Anne-Marie McDermott seated at the keyboard.

The pianist (a frequent visitor to the Vail fest) once again imbued this quirky and demanding piece with her brand of solid musicianship, demonstrating an obvious fondness for its soulful musings, as well as the slapsticky humor that pops up in unexpected places.

Also chipping in with first-rate solo playing was DSO principal trumpeter Ryan Anthony.

The Shostakovich proved quite a contrast to the classical purity and intimacy of Mozart's beloved G-minorSymphony, which preceded it.

Here, Litton led a reduced orchestra in a vibrant performance. If the Minuet unfolded in unusually brisk fashion, the conductor never let the music's charms disappear from view.

The DSO continues this weekend with a pops program tonight and some more Shostakovich (Symphony No. 9) and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with another frequent Vail visitor: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.