You will need to hunt far and wide to hear a better performance of Mahler’s First Symphony than the Dallas Symphony Orchestra delivered under the pugnacious baton of Music Director Jaap van Zweden. More about that later.
The concert opened with the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Nina Kotova, who commissioned the work, did the honors with Maestro van Zweden assigned the difficult job of holding it all together.
The composer has described the opening movement as having windy textures and shimmery musical effects. The rustic drumming and raucous dance rhythms of the first movement was so different from this description that a double-check of the program was needed to see if there wasn’t an opener before the concerto. This is not to say that it was not exciting and terrific—it was. It was just such a shock. The composer may have thought that the orchestra was the "wind around the cello," and the pedal tones did convey the constant background sound of a very windy day, but these ears heard a primitivism and a wind storm more attuned to King Lear on the heath. The lyrical second thematic material formed a perfect contrast without changing the mood.
Upon reflection, the piece seems to be more like a larger single movement work in an overarching three-part form. This impression was underlined by the second movement, which played much like an accompanied cadenza. A series of events was laid over the continued wind sound of a tremolo in the strings. The composer called this movement an "unanswered question" and this it may have been, but question or not, the soloist's ruminations were those of a troubled soul. The listeners were drawn into these internal struggles in spite of themselves. The last movement, a driven finale, brought the work to an exciting conclusion.
Theofanidis has written a most welcome addition to the repertoire for the instrument. It is fragmented and unified as well as lyric and angular, all at the same time. The musical language shows its family tree here and there, but all of these parental influences are tossed unceremoniously into the pot and a distinctive voice emerges. Ms. Katova made an excellent case for the concerto and navigated its many extreme difficulties with verve. The work asks everything possible from the instrument from wide tremolos and blindingly fast passage work to stratospheric trills. She is an exciting player and, draped in sparkling gold, shot off as many fireworks visually as the music did aurally.
The second half of the program was a near-perfect reading of the Mahler Symphony No.1, the "Titan." Never was that subtitle more appropriate than hearing this towering masterwork in the hands of the DSO and van Zweden. This is obviously his piece. Every section of this sprawling work—which in lesser hands can seem like a random conglomeration of everything from nursery tunes and cuckoo calls to a Klezmer and oompa battle of the bands—was knit together like some assembled artwork puzzle where you only see the beautiful picture and the outline of the pieces from which it was made fade into irrelevance. His gestures, showing more independence of the hands than in the concerto, were communicative and effective without being mannered as some showier and highly polished conductors are wont to do. Sometimes, in his immersion in the music he would arrive early at a secondary beat and then need to wait a moment for the music to catch up before moving on to complete the measure, but this only heightened the level of excitement.
Was it studio perfect? Well, of course not. There was the occasional bobble from the usual suspects, but it feels misanthropic to even bring it up.
There is really little more to say than wow. As always, the acoustics of the Meyerson amazed and was as much a star of the evening as the players and conductor. Gushing over more of the details of this thoughtful and thrilling performance would be pointless. The instantaneous and tumultuous ovation from the audience said more than enough. More importantly, the spontaneous eruption of cheers demonstrated that they were with van Zweden and the orchestra every step of the way on Mahler’s journey through the human condition.
Any fan of Mahler—or of fine orchestral playing for that matter—should not miss this concert.