A great Friday night spent with friends, listening to a world-class orchestra — and a pianist who left us in awe

A night with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra — like the one I spent Friday with two friends and former Dallas Morning News colleagues — never disappoints. Far from it, this collection of world-class musicians amazes, captivates, delights and shines from first note to last during every piece in every program. The brilliance the DSO achieves with such limited rehearsal time for each week’s performances, which usually stretch over three or four days, is stunning to behold, almost unbelievable to comprehend.

I’m usually only able to attend one or two DSO concerts each season (three if I’m lucky), which runs from September through May. Maybe I’ll spring for a partial season ticket package one of these years.

Although I’ve loved classical music since my high school band days playing the clarinet, I’m certainly not familiar with every composer or everything in the genre’s seemingly infinite storehouse. Nor do I necessarily enjoy all of it, although rarely do I hear a classical piece and think, “Wow, I don’t like this one.”

It’s really an overall appreciation of and seduction by the beauty of the music, the synergy and artistry of the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion in turning such difficult compositions into sheer perfection. Each brand of music brings its own unique performance challenges, but when I hear or watch an orchestra perform, I find the technical demands — especially on the strings — staggering.

But back to Friday night’s concert at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which I attended with Ed Sargent (who retired from the DMN in 2015) and Alfredo Carbajal (unfortunately, Alfredo had to leave during intermission). As with most DSO concerts I attend, there was one headliner that attracted me — Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful “Scheherazade,” based on One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights).

It was wonderful getting together with my friend and former Dallas Morning News colleague Ed Sargent, whom I don’t get to see often, and Alfredo Carbajal, who’s still at the paper but had to leave at intermission.

The DSO performed “Scheherazade” after the intermission, and it was magnificent. The many solos during the four movements — from the violin to the clarinet to the oboe to the bassoon, flute, French horn, cello and more — were flawless. The performance couldn’t have been more impressive and moving.

To make it even more memorable, guest conductor Marin Alsop, who has a resume as sterling as any female conductor in the world, was brilliant in leading the orchestra through its rousing rendition of one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s best, most popular works.

But the performance just before intermission, featuring Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero, was an unexpected, thrilling treat. Actually, maybe it wasn’t so unexpected, because my friend Claudia Fuenmayor, our wonderful pianist at The Welcome Table Christian Church, had already told me how amazing Gabriela is — and oh my gosh, is she ever. 

Marin Alsop was brilliant as the DSO’s guest conductor.

Gabriela, who has played with many of the world’s leading orchestras, performed the “Latin” concerto, which she composed in 2019. It was 30 minutes of virtuosity and absolute grace from one end of the keyboard to the other, and she and the orchestra — again, with sparse rehearsal time — gelled beautifully. How touring piano soloists play with so many orchestras and all the musicians manage to stay in sync throughout a concerto is truly remarkable. But after all, they are the best at what they do.

The daughter of an American mother and Venezuelan father, Gabriela was 18 months old when she began picking out the melody of her country’s national anthem on her child’s piano. She started taking piano lessons at 4 and made her concerto debut at 8, performing a Haydn piece with the national youth orchestra at the National Theater in Caracas. The following year, she received a government scholarship to study in the U.S.

As dazzling as Gabriela’s concerto was Friday night, her encore may have been even more extraordinary. I had no idea she’s known for leaving her audiences in open-mouthed awe by asking someone to sing a few notes of a well-known melody, then taking off with it while improvising a mini-concerto based on that piece of music. Back in the day, the great composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and others also were gifted improvisers.

During our concert, where we were sitting on the floor level on the left end of the stage — although you can’t see the whole orchestra from the floor, we had the best vantage point to see Gabriela’s flying fingers — an attendee loudly hummed a few notes for her that I couldn’t recognize at first. But not long after she played those notes and then launched into her improvisation, which lasted more than five minutes, I realized it was the theme from Gone With the Wind.

Part of the bio on Gabriela Montero from Friday night’s program.

Like everyone else in attendance, we were astonished that anyone could compose something so grand on the spot — on the piano, of all instruments. Although I have a music background and some piano experience, I’m no expert, but it’s one thing to riff on a guitar or improvise on a trumpet, a sax or the drums.

Creating a piano concerto out of thin air from an audience request? It would seem an impossible feat to pull off. In the hands of a contemporary master and former child prodigy like Gabriela, not so much. My friend Ed, who’s been to a lot more orchestra concerts than I have, was blown away by what Gabriela did in her encore, saying he’d never seen anything like it.

Here’s a link where you can watch videos of Gabriela’s improvisations. On the second part of the first video, she improvises off the Star Wars theme. It’s incredible!

5 amazing improvisation performances from pianist Gabriela Montero – Pianist (pianistmagazine.com)

Whenever I write about a trip to the Meyerson, I like to encourage folks to take in a DSO concert. You don’t have to be a fan of classical music. It’s a wonderful experience, and the hall’s acoustics are unbeatable.

Something else that’s been unsurpassed lately: the prices you can get for some of the seats. Our tickets for Friday’s concert were $20! That, my friends, is the best bargain you’ll ever find to see a symphony of the DSO’s caliber. With the fees, each ticket cost $26.50 — still a fantastic deal.

We always go for the cheapest tickets, but if you don’t mind spending more, there are plenty of other options. Next to us, there were several empty seats, which I always hate to see. These musicians deserve the community’s support, and you simply won’t find a better orchestra anywhere.

Kay — not a classical music buff by any stretch — and I will be going to a DSO concert on May 6 with the talented Claudia and her husband, David. This time it’ll be Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 — the tickets were just $21 and plenty of those are still available.

See you there? Emoji

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