After a series of Pops concerts featuring John Williams’ film scores, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra returned to standard classical fare this weekend with Canadian guest conductor Julian Kuerti. Debussy’s Ibéria never really got off the ground, but Mr Kuerti and the DSO had better luck in music by Joaquín Rodrigo and Prokofiev. Pairing the Debussy with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez made for an all-“Spanish” first half, a well-worn programming device. More interestingly, however, the entire concert struck me as three composers’ translations of certain stimuli into art via the imagination, a collection of works inhabiting the space between free fantasies and program music.

Three of four works Debussy planned to compose under the title Images were completed: the two books of Images for solo piano, and a set of three orchestral pieces. Ibéria, which consists itself of three movements, is the second of that orchestral group. While he achieved a distinctly Spanish flavor in this piece, Debussy never claimed any attempt at authenticity in composing it. Rather, Manuel de Falla reported that Debussy merely sought “to translate into music the associations that Spain had aroused in him”. In other words, Ibéria is a personalized, Debussian fantasy on the meaning of “Spanish-ness”.

Similarly, Rodrigo did not aim in his Concierto to create a straightforward, abstract showpiece for guitar and orchestra. Indeed, he said that he was inspired by the notion of “a strange phantasmagoric, colossal and multiform instrument” with “the wings of the harp, the heart of the grand piano and the soul of the guitar”, part of his conception of the quintessential Spanish sound. (Both this quotation and Falla’s comments about Debussy were featured in the program notes.) Rodrigo then, like Debussy, tried to realize in music a fantastical figment of his imagination.

And while Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is a ballet with recognizably programmatic moments, this is ultimately the personal reaction of a great composer to a great stage work. The result, especially when performed in excerpted form in a concert setting, is a collection of character pieces that fit much more into the quasi-fantasia genre occupied by Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet than under the heading of program music. Yet another set of pieces reflecting a composer’s impressions of given subject matter, rather than the subject itself.

Ibéria, which opened the concert, was insufficiently organized to convey structural coherence, nor were atmospheres adequately evoked to maintain interest throughout. The performance was instead – perhaps due to Mr Kuerti’s rather homogenous beat size and gestures – a bit disheveled, ranging in dynamic only from about mezzo-piano to a couple of instances of forte. Dynamics, on the other hand, were Mr Kuerti’s strong suit in the Rodrigo. Accompanying the superb guitarist Manuel Barrueco, Mr Kuerti was particularly adept at achieving a variety of colors within the quieter end of the spectrum. Mr Barrueco’s guitar was subtly and nicely amplified, allowing his full arsenal of timbres to speak. The DSO imitated well the sound of the guitar, notably the way in which notes decay after being strummed, giving the orchestra an appropriately airy sound at times.

Conducting from memory, Mr Kuerti showed an obvious inclination for the Prokofiev. Most of the selections featured strong characterization and sweeping lyricism, and softer textures were especially lovely, as in the rising sequence of major-harmony resolutions at the opening of “Romeo and Juliet” (the balcony scene). However, rhythmically taut numbers like “Juliet – The Young Girl” or “Death of Tybalt” could have used a more assertive pulse. As in the Debussy, Mr Kuerti’s beats were often slightly inconsistent and his ictus (the imaginary plane on which the conductor marks beats with the baton) was a bit imprecise for this music. Nevertheless, he had much to express throughout the set, which consisted of eight selections loosely outlining the dramatic action of Shakespeare’s play, and drew a charismatic performance from the DSO.

***11