Dallas — Wow.
“Wow” can mean a lot of things, and if the Dallas Symphony’s May 24 concert by Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony, at the Meyerson Symphony Center, didn't have every conceivable kind of wow, it's because it didn't need them. Of course, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony comes with a bunch of built-in wows, and if some of them don't show up in a performance, it probably shouldn't have been on the program in the first place.
Thursday evening's Ninth had all of the built-ins. I'm fond of saying that nothing beats a live performance, and that goes double for the Ninth in general, and triple for this weekend’s performances, since they’re van Zweden's last three with the DSO as its Music Director. Thursday’s concert also featured what is, for my money, an ideal quartet as the work’s vocal soloists, as well as orchestral and choral forces that should be the envy of the New York Philharmonic and any other orchestras that van Zweden finds himself conducting next year.
But Beethoven's Ninth is not Mahler's Third. It's not a program in itself, even though it can't help but overshadow anything else that has the misfortune to share the bill with it. What work would you offer up in return for the privilege of mounting one of the biggest, loudest—oh, yes, I almost forgot—most beloved showpieces in the orchestral repertoire?
Not Enough Double Stops?
Thursday night's answer was Jonathan Leshnoff's Violin Concerto No. 2, co-commissioned by the DSO and the Harrisburg Symphony, and performed with the DSO Concertmaster Alexander Kerr as soloist. It was an answer that I won't forget.
Think of Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce: a supporting actress who darned near steals the show from Joan Crawford (but you'd better not say that or they'll run you out of town on a rail). Leshnoff's second concerto proceeds with such beauty, grace and restraint that it could embarrass any other work—but, by a similar token, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Anyhow, it formed the evening’s perfect counterweight to the Ninth.
But is restraint even appropriate for a concerto? You might as well complain that the work didn't have enough major chords, or enough extended techniques, or enough paprika. I found the concerto's first movement restrained, beautiful, and unpredictable, full of humility, but also confident in its manipulation of melodies that, if perhaps unmemorable individually, left the impression of growth from a central unspoken element (and, having listened without first reading, it was gratifying later to have the program notes bear out a little of that impression). And the second movement featured soloist and cello section competing their way through a passage that I was wishing could go on forever; Leshnoff scored this slow movement almost exclusively for strings, saving Emily Levin's harp for a moment of payoff in which she transformed the ensemble from strings-only to everything-you-need.
Restraint and humility: two essential elements of this unusual concerto, elements that a perceptive audience might see allegorically represented in the composer’s management of orchestral forces. That second movement is scored for strings only—but there’s a harp. And the trombones were always installing their mutes--but that means they played without them for a while, doesn't it? And the performance featured percussionist Daniel Florio in some excellent mallet-work—playing the most humongous marimba you'll ever see—that grew naturally out of the music rather obtruded as a gimmick. And when a melody from the first movement showed up in the last, having followed a trajectory that was difficult to predict but easy and rewarding to follow, I never felt as if the composer was turning to say to me, "doesn't this just make you want to say 'Wow'?"
Restraint, humility, and confidence. That's enough to make me say it—a restrained, surprised and thoroughly disarmed "wow," one made all the more necessary by van Zweden's meticulous leadership of the ensemble and Alexander Kerr's utter absorption in a beautifully rendered solo part that I'm certain was as rewarding to perform as it was to listen to.
Also On the Program…
Having been so pleasantly taken by surprise with the premiere of Leshnoff's second concerto, it was easy to forget for the moment what it was that many came to hear: Jaap van Zweden going out with a bang.
The first three movements of the Beethoven were expertly played, and van Zweden made the most of the symphony's weirder points. There was the unearthly, unstable hinge that joins the first movement's development and recapitulation, roaring this time instead of yelling. There were the timpani intrusions into the scherzo's middle section—(at the second "Ritmo di tre battute," instruction for the conductor to beat in threes) handled this time with a diminuendo that started considerably earlier than I'm used to. And there was that third movement with its divisions between variations that I can always see in the score but can never follow in performance; this time I was positive the strings started the triplets early (they didn’t—I checked).
The finale had everything, including a quartet of near-perfect vocal soloists. Ellie Dehn pinch-hit beautifully for an absent Lise Lindstrom, tossing off high B's like they were nothing; DSO Artist-In-Residence Michelle DeYoung looked and sounded like she was having the time of her life; and no matter how large your orchestra and chorus are, they’ll be no match for tenor Stuart Skelton. Matthias Goerne deserves special praise for bringing operatic vigor and warmth to his part. With the opening words, “O Freunde…,” he sounded more like a man singing to a roomful of his friends than Thursday evening’s bass singing Schiller.
The chorus—the huge Dallas Symphony Orchestra Chorus, led by Joshua Habermann and absolutely packing the choir lofts—looked almost as pleased as Ms. DeYoung to be in on the occasion. They were up to every challenge the conductor and the score could throw at them, including a high A for the sopranos that seems to go on forever at the end of the double fugue (and they may still be singing it).
Saturday’s performance is sold out—that’s van Zweden’s final final performance as leader of this symphony. But as far as I know, there are still some seats available for this evening’s performance. If not, let me know—I’ll give you Alice the Scalper’s number.
» Editor's note: The city will bask in the glow when, on Saturday night, buildings in and around Dallas will celebrate van Zweden's decade with the DSO by glowing orange, the color of the DSO's logo.
Participating buildings include:
- Bank of America Plaza
- 17Seventeen McKinney
- Harwood International
- Hunt Consolidated, Inc.
- KPMG Plaza at HALL Arts
- Omni Dallas Hotel
- One Arts Plaza
- One Uptown
- Salazar Center