Dallas — This weekend the Dallas Symphony presents a program with one rarity, a world premiere and one of the most frequently performed symphonies in the repertoire. Something for everyone, indeed. The audience responded enthusiastically to all three selections on Thursday, demonstrating a broad appreciation for all three categories.
The Greek-born violinist Leonidas Kavakos took on Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a difficult work to play and to comprehend, especially on first hearing (which this had to be for a portion of the audience). Bartók wrote a first concerto when he was much younger, but it wasn’t discovered until 1956, after his his death in 1945. At that point, this concerto, simply called Bartók’s Violin Concerto, became No. 2. Its technical demands are legendary and Kavakos met them all head on. His passive and determined demeanor was only occasionally ruffled. The dichotomy of his physical deportment and the passionate music pouring out of his violin was striking.
While not composed in the 12-tone tradition, which was all the rage at the time, Bartók uses some of the elements of that system of composing. For example, one theme deliberatively contains all 12 notes. Like some of his masterpieces, written about the same time, his harmonic language ranges from beautiful, such as the lovely folk-inspired opening theme, to thorny dissonances, even some quartertones. However, the precise intonation of the both the orchestra and Kavakos tamed some of the usually more dissonant sounding sections and the quartertones before the cadenza were appropriately eerie.
This concerto, especially the first movement, is constantly shifting in tempo and pace. This gives the impression of an improvised rhapsody, but this is not the case. Bartók’s markings are detailed and specific. This usually creates a nightmarish situation in performance, but van Zweden’s background as a concert violinist, and Kavakos’ sure-footed performance offered a promising situation. Although it was apparent on Thursday evening that another rehearsal would have really helped (as it always does), the fortunate confluence of conductor, violinist and orchestra delivered as good a live performance as you are likely to hear. Everyone was on high alert indeed. Things should calm down, without losing any of the intensity, in subsequent performances.
The new piece introduced on the program is Feierliche Abendmusik (Solemn Night Music) by the Dutch composer John Borstlap. It is a joint commission by the Dallas Symphony, the Hong Kong Symphony and van Zweden himself. Some musical styles of writing and harmonic languages are so distinctive that it is difficult to use them today without sounding derivative. One example is the music of Debussy. Only the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes gave that a try, with great musical success, but also received some derision. (His marvelous piece, The White Peacock is refered to as The Afternoon of a White Peacock).
Back to Borstlap’s piece. While not as obvious as Griffes’ stylistic appropriation, Borstlap boldly uses the musical language of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht, and Anton Webern’s Im Sommerwind from 1904. This overripe chromatically complex music is gorgeous, no doubt, but it is easy to see why it was a musical cul-de-sac. There is little room for this harmonic structure to grow, more complexity is unimaginable, and Schoenberg tossed it out completely (probably an over-reaction). Borstlap, while obviously at home in this language, resurrects it as it was. He doesn’t process it though the intervening century of harmonic exploration or bring anything of his own to it. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. The result is certainly carefully composed and gorgeous to hear.
After intermission, van Zweden and the DSO turned in a ferocious performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The Meyerson Symphony Center rang to the rafters from the first notes onward. His tempi were lightening fast. Once set, he rarely deviated from them giving the performance a trimmed down 21st Century reading, eschewing any old-fashioned 19th century romanticisms. The dynamics ranged from hushed pianissimo passages to great swaths of thundering fortissimo playing. His demeanor was intense and demanding throughout. From the first downbeat, thrown like a javelin, this was a no-nonsense performance with Beethoven’s already condensed symphony reduced to its parfum.
The problem is that the above paragraph is both everything that is wonderful about van Zweden and everything that drives people nuts at the same time. However, there is no doubt about his brilliance. No matter which side of the argument you are on, everyone has to agree that he delivers an exciting performance—and that is what it is all about.