Review: Phillips demonstrates exquisite mastery leading Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Review of Paul Phillips, director of Orchestral Activities at SMU, directing the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

The Dallas Morning News

Thursday night's Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert brought the most distinguished conducting debut since music director-to-be Jaap van Zweden first appeared with the orchestra.

Those who've witnessed Paul Phillips' work as music director of Southern Methodist University's Meadows Symphony Orchestra won't be surprised at his command of the orchestra or the depth of the music-making. Still, it was thrilling to hear him draw expressive nuances not quite possible even with his very fine student ensemble.

Without a note on auto-pilot, Phillips lovingly paced, proportioned, balanced and shaped everything, from the Fourth symphonies of Beethoven and Schumann to a brand-new viola concerto by American composer Margaret Brouwer.

Commissioned by the DSO for principal violist Ellen Rose, Brouwer's concerto is in the traditional three movements.

The Gregorian chant "Ubi caritas" is a signature theme in the first movement, variously speeded, slowed and fragmented. (Rose helpfully played the theme before the concerto.)

The piece opens edgily. English horn, harp and marimba attempt to calm the viola's anxieties, and eventually the soloist emerges transfigured. The orchestra responds with an ecstatic outpouring, and bell sounds bring the movement to a quiet close.

The central movement bears a quotation from the Biblical Song of Songs: "...fair as the moon, bright as the sun..." In pre-performance remarks from the stage, Brouwer described it as a love song. The viola threads its melody through gentle rustles and cascades which gradually grow in richness and complexity. The finale is playful, even mischievous, with slides and scrawny on-the-bridge grunts for the viola, and sharply snapped pluckings for cellos and basses.

Brouwer was a violinist before turning full-time to composition; she played in the Fort Worth Symphony in the early 1980s and sometimes subbed in the DSO. She has written skillfully and imaginatively for both viola and orchestra, and the music engages start to finish. How about a recording?

An occasional lyrical line wasn't flawlessly tuned, but otherwise Rose's command of the piece was complete. Playing most expressively, with beautiful tone, she tossed off virtuoso passages with aplomb. Phillips and the orchestra collaborated surely and effectively.

The Beethoven and Schumann symphonies were wisely paced, lovingly detailed and altogether refreshed. Here's a conductor to bring back early and often.

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