Dallas — On Friday evening, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under Maestro Jaap van Zweden, presented a concert with only two major works on the program. They opened with a spectacular performance of Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante for cello, with the extraordinary Alisa Weilerstein doing the honors, and ended with a dull and ponderous performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “The Rhenish.”
Prokofiev’s piece went through a metamorphosis before it became what was heard on Friday. It started out life as a cello concerto (1933-1938), which the composer rewrote as his Cello Concerto No. 2 (1952) for the great virtuoso, Mstislav Rostropovich. After the premiere, the composer made significant enough revisions that it needed a new name: Symphony-Concerto in E-minor, Op. 125; but it is almost always refered to as his Sinfonia concertante.
The solo part of the piece is so difficult that it is generally considered to be unplayable, although some cellists have undertaken it with mixed results. Hearing such a performance creates astonishment at the technical demands, no matter how they are executed, but gives almost no thought to the piece itself. Not so on Friday evening.
Although the audience was amazed by what Prokofiev demanded of the cellist, Weilerstein so completely conquered all the murderous machinations and technical travails that the piece of music itself could be admired. It is not just a collection of impossible cello riffs, but a remarkable and carefully constructed piece of pure Prokofiev. Weilerstein’s musicianship, which is equal to her technical wizardry, made this possible.
She was always in the moment while still having an overarching concept, even when she wasn’t playing. Her part never had any rests, just stretches of music where she didn’t have notes. At one point, when she shared playing a melody with the solo winds, she leaned back so as to be in contact with them. While playing this piece is a strenuous task, and she was physically into the piece as much as mentally, her body movements were appropriate and never excessive. It was a remarkable performance.
Alas, the same cannot be said about van Zweden’s trudge through the Schumann. Every tempo he took was on the slow side. The performance lacked energy and drive right from the heroic opening theme to the big finale. Van Zweden’s conducting was odd as well. He mirrored his hands frequently and his beat pattern was erratic. He even conducted the hemiola passages as they sound rather than contained within the written meter.
Moment of Geek: Hemiola is when a passage is written to sound like it is not in the meter. For example, if the measure is in three, a hemiola can be created by writing the notes in a duple pattern. Schumann uses this device frequently in the symphony and Brahms was also a big fan.
Schumann’s orchestration is dense, to say the least. Most of the instruments play most of the time. This means that the conductor must balance the orchestra within itself, in layers as it were. For example, when the winds have a prominent passage, the remainder of the orchestra must be much softer. This didn’t happen often enough so the general sound the DSO produced was “orchestral” throughout. This led to some aural monotony added to the already dispirited tempi.
Schumann called this symphony “The Rhenish" because it was a musical postcard from a delightful trip to the Rhineland with his wife, Clara, who was the leading concert pianist of the day. Thus, the symphony needs to be full of life. It is too bad that the performance lacked the required sparkle and brisk tempi because it is so rarely programmed.
Following the explosive Prokofiev didn’t help.