Dallas — Plato once said that music gives soul to the universe and wings to the mind. That quote kept going through my awareness on Friday evening as Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony delivered a superlative performance of Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No. 2. Perhaps I was reminded of Plato because the symphony deals with nothing less than the meaning of life, the inevitability of death and the assurance of resurrection. The DSO magnificently delivered Mahler’s message.
Van Zweden was the superb conductor that he can be and stayed out of his own way. There was none of his micromanaging to be seen, nor was he tense or overly demanding. He appeared to be calm, the controlling eye of the musical hurricane that swirled around him. He was also in complete command because it was given rather than demanded. Some tempi were unusual but made sense in context of his performance.
The audience sat in rapt attention as van Zweden led both orchestra and listener on a trip through Mahler’s mind. When it was over, the huge ovation was as much for us and our newly gained understanding of life’s big questions as it was for the performers. It was hard to believe that 90 minutes had passed.
Rather than give well-deserved and detailed kudos to individual players and sections, let me summarize by saying that the orchestra delivered a nearly flawless performance. Yes, there were the inevitable human errors here and there, but that is why live music will never be conquered by highly edited recordings.
The Dallas Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Joshua Habermann sat quietly for more than an hour, never moving, as though they were a painted backdrop. Their first entrance was so hushed that, at first, it was impossible to tell where the sound came from. Then, the listener remembered that the chorus was there.
In a coup de théâtre, van Zweden kept them seated during all of the quiet singing and then they all leapt up with the first fortissimo.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung took a while to get her voice warmed up when she started her solo. And why not, after sitting silently for so long a time? But once she started it was entrancing. Soprano Dorothea Röschmann lacked the limpid line that one hopes for, but she also sang better as the piece continued, and had the power required later.
My only hesitation in giving a complete rave is dynamics. True, this is a difficult piece to modulate. Mahler freely writes triple forte throughout the score and van Zweden made the most of all of them without overblowing or exaggeration. Yes, Mahler’s explosive fright scream that opens the last movement was truly terrifying. The last five minutes or so have one big triple forte moment after another. But, I couldn’t help but regret that van Zweden didn’t save a single decibel to bestow on the last chords.
In the end, performances like this one carefully build one note at a time. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is credited with saying that architecture starts when you place the first two bricks carefully together. Many times a performance just remains a pile of promising bricks and we in the audience are asked to imagine what the structure will be from the size of the pile. Last night, every brick was in place and Mahler’s towering symphony stood, pristine, in all its glory.