Dallas — Rachmaninoff’s second symphony is a perennial favorite of audiences as the nearly sold-out Meyerson Symphony Center concertgoers on Thursday attested. Even the miserably uncomfortable choral terrace was filled (but it compensates by offering the advantage of a view of the conductor that the orchestra sees). The Dallas Symphony with Musical Director Jaap van Zweden amply rewarded the highest hopes of those in attendance with a magnificent performance back on the podium.
The program opened with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat, which is a concerto for a group of instruments and orchestra. It featured DSO principal players who deserve lavish praise for their performance in the Rachmaninoff and who showed off their versatility in this piece. They are: violinist Nathan Olson, oboist Erin Hannigan, bassoonist Ted Soluri, and cellist Theodore Harvey. It proved to be the perfect amuse-bouche, with its classical sensibilities and concise order, to Rachmaninoff’s ultra-romantic extravagance. Once again, the intonation was the standout. It was clean and transparent, with all of the individual lines crystal clean. This is especially praise-worthy considering the piece was a last-minute replacement because of an ailing soloist who canceled.
After intermission, Van Zweden did a fine job with Rachmaninoff’s glorious Symphony No. 2, but the real star of the evening was the orchestra itself. All the principal players had solo passages that they played as well as such players in any orchestra I have ever heard—and that is a lot of them. Right from the first movement, the depth of the string sound was almost overwhelming. The intonation of the orchestra was one of the major elements creating the rich sound they produced. One remarkable wind chord was so perfectly in tune that hung in the air like it was a tangible presence.
Van Zweden obviously knows this symphony intimately and has a sense of the architecture and a carefully thought-out road map to lead us through Rachmaninoff’s lengthy symphony. He held the audience in rapt attention from beginning to end. One way he did this was by calling attention to how the composer uses the opening melodic material as a unifier. Van Zweden brought it out whenever it, or a variation, appeared. Quite remarkable.
On the down side, van Zweden overplayed the many crescendo/decrescendo pairs in such a way that the performance felt like riding waves of sound. This is a valid interpretation but a few less swells would have added to the drama of the more prominent ones. He also reached maximum volume barely 10 minutes into this hour-plus performance. Further, the last movement was so fast that the shorter notes blurred. However, as the movement progressed, van Zweden slowed it down somewhat and he brought the symphony to a thrilling close.
The slow movement contains one of Rachmaninoff’s most beautiful and sweeping melodies, one that is well known to symphonic neophytes and was eagerly anticipated. Van Zweden took a surprisingly conservative approach to it, giving the climatic moment minimal space on its dramatic approach. I wished for a bigger slurp.
But all of these comments are minor quibbles. Overall, this was a memorable performance, expertly conducted, of this astounding masterpiece, which is on the list of the greatest of the Romanic symphonies. I wish that my schedule allowed for me to hear it again.