The Dallas Symphony presented a concert that was unusual in that it didn't contain a big symphony in the second half. Instead, the only complete major work on the program was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19. Musical Director Jaap van Zweden surrounded this elegant work with three orchestral showpieces—assembled or drawn from dramatic works. The concert was heard on Saturday, rather than the usual Thursday opening due to covering the Cliburn screening auditions for the upcoming 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. You can read all about the auditions here.
The DSO orchestra played with great virtuosity, sounding marvelous, displaying close attention to ensemble and intonation. It was exciting to the max. When the last stupendous chord rang out in the world-class acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center, the audience went wild.
The program was bookended by two selections from German Romantic operas. The first was a no-nonsense reading of the Vorspiel und Liebestod (Prelude and love death) from Wagner's transcendent opera Tristan und Isolde. The last piece was the Suite from Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59, in the version that is generally credited to the conductor Artur Rodzinski. Van Zweden has paired these two works before, most memorably last June in a concert that coincided with the big convention in Dallas of the League of American Orchestras.
This time, if memory serves, van Zweden took a slightly quicker tempo in the Wagner and used less rubato (give and take), both inside the phrases and at the ends of them. As was the case all evening, his beat pattern was surprisingly large throughout, even in the quietest places; he frequently mirrored his hands and kept a tight control, subdividing frequently. However, Wagner's glorious pan-tonal music still swept us along to Isolde's ecstatic visions that bring the opera to a heartbreaking close.
At the opening of the second half, van Zweden tossed in a performance the "Elegy" by Steven Stucky. This is a symphonic moment in his dramatic oratorio August 4, 1964, and as such, it easily extracted. The DSO premiered the whole work in 2008 and has repeated it a couple of times, most notably in May of 2011 and, on tour, in New York City the next day. They have also issued an excellent recording. You can read an interview with Stucky here.
In a season bereft of music by living composers, and an even worse one in this regard looming ahead, inclusion of the Elegy was most welcome. It is a powerful piece in its own rite and doesn't require the context of the whole work to be effective. The walls of sound at the beginning lost none of their impact and the exhausted ending had the same sense of despair as it did in the performance of the entire piece.
There are many Rosenkavalier suites rumbling around and the one van Zweden programmed does a very good job of presenting all of the hit tunes from the opera. It is only marred by the tacky and tacked-on Hollywood ending that has nothing to do with the opera; more Johann Strauss, Jr. than Richard. But however it is arranged, this is some of the greatest, and most effective, music ever written. Van Zweden and the DSO gave it a spectacular performance. He divorced the music from the sophisticated comic opera libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and played it like a tone poem. When conducting the opera itself, he would surely have a lot more fun with it.
The horn section had a great night, right from the beginning. David Cooper, a new addition to the section, was in the now-vacant first horn chair and proved to one and all that he is capable of staying there. The first horn part is front and center throughout and challenging in the extreme. Cooper was spot on.
All principals had significant solos and deserved the recognition that van Zweden bestowed on each of them at the conclusion of the performance. Concertmaster Alexander Kerr, oboist Erin Hannigan and clarinetist Gregory Raden were standouts, but everyone did a great job.
In between the operatic selections, pianist Anton Nel, who is on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, gave a sparklingly clean reading of the Beethoven concerto. Van Zweden and the orchestra were right with him throughout. Nel remains upright but bends his head down at the neck to see the keyboard. This has the amusing effect of making it look like he is nodding off, as if you were just looking at a photograph. But there was nothing sleepy about his energetic and crystal clear performance. His soft legato lines were as impressive as his technical command. They could have had more fun with the last movement—Beethoven surely would have. But it was a terrific performance all the way around.