Gaffigan makes a mixed impression with DSO in orchestral showpieces

Texas Classical Review
by: Wayne Lee Gay

American guest conductor James Gaffigan barreled through a program of romantic and twentieth-century music with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center—finding the thrills but often overlooking the poetry in well-known works of Copland, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky.

On the surface, Copland’s El Salon Mexico is a touristy, even colonialist collection of popular tunes—albeit skillfully collated, and gussied up with Copland’s delightfully colorful orchestral effects and resonant harmonies. If there’s a more profound imagining of desperate, impulsive celebration underneath, Gaffigan chose to ignore that possibility, instead playing up the condescending comedy and noise, particularly of those booming bass drum exclamations. The orchestra, to its credit, responded neatly and efficiently across the wide spectrum of effects, ranging expertly from delicacy to bombast.

This high-octane approach worked much more successfully when British pianist Stephen Hough joined Gaffigan and the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. One of the great Rachmaninoff interpreters of our time, Hough combined elegantly sharp passagework and muscular depth of tone for a breathtaking technical display, at the same time bringing a perfect balance of intellectual understanding and instinctive emotion to the work.

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