Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a surefire crowd-pleaser in even the most modest of hands. However, when all of the elements come together, as they did on Thursday evening at the Meyerson Symphony Center, it can be a glorious event. The Dallas Symphony played magnificently, but it was the chorus that stole the show. The program didn’t mention who was the interim choral director─a permanent one has yet to be named─but three cheers to whoever that was. The sound was deep and resonant and the German diction nearly flawless.
All of the solo players covered themselves with glory. The winds deserve special merit for all of the perfectly in-tune sustained playing in the slow movement. However, mention must be made of guest timpanist Brian Jones, who played beautifully, but with all the histrionics of a teppanyaki chef at Benihana’s, with mallets instead of flashing knives. I hate to complain, because it was probably the best that have ever heard that part played, but it was certainly distracting from the unified orchestral picture.
There are entire volumes that have been written about the tempi in this piece and any time two conductors get together this is a sure to be a subject for argument. Even the markings that Beethoven put in the score are open to some question as to placement and actual meaning. A perusal of the timings on commercially available records shows a wide range, some differing by as much as 15 minutes. But it is not always a matter of tempo, sometimes a slower tempo can crackle with intensity and a faster one can sound frivolous and both can still be within the general range of what Beethoven indicated.
It is a guess that Music Director Jaap van Zweden has made a careful and intense study of all of these arguments and then threw them all out to go with his own musical instincts. He created a unified whole without ever residing long in any one school of thought. In general, his tempi were consistently on the brisk side. If you think about the first movement as a glimpse of the majesty of the universe, then he was too fast to create that sense of grandeur. But if it was just the first movement of a symphony that creates its own grandeur, then his tempo was perfect.
The scherzo is always fast and the pace of the contrasting trio section is one of those pistols-at-dawn points of controversy. Van Zweden took the faster option, with which this writer disagrees, but it worked brilliantly because the players of the DSO were able to make the faster tempo sound effortless. The slow movement is sometimes played as a serious meditation on existential matters, but at van Zweden’s more flowing tempo, it took on a elegant hint of a Viennese waltz. This offered a refreshing break from all the German schmertz. Agree or not, it certainly worked in the context.
The last movement, a transcendental set of variations on a noble theme, is really the heart of the symphony. Beethoven begins it with a discussion with himself. The bass and cello section act as inquisitor and the composer offers a taste of the three preceding movements, much as a graduate student defending his thesis, before the final theme is presented to much acclaim. Here, although it is incredibly nerdy to say so, van Zweden was at his very best. These recitatives were just perfect in movement and phrasing. You may not have understood the questions but, there was no doubt whatsoever how van Zweden answered them and the pacing of the last movement showed that he meant what he said.
The quartet of soloists have remarkable little to do in this piece, especially in light of how much everyone else has on their plate, and some of it (such as the cadenza) is so badly written for the voices that it almost never comes off. However, their role is critical and a solid quartet is required. Luca Pisaroni, bass, got things off to a stentorian start. Mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco has the least to do of all, but she made the most of it. Tenor Russell Thomas was a surprise─a real heldentenor─ although his variation was slightly rushed and his final notes covered by the orchestral onslaught. Soprano Jeanine Thames was a last minute replacement, but you couldn’t do better if you had years to hunt. She has a glorious voice and sounded magnificent. The lack of rehearsal showed in that she was unprepared for the lickty-split tempi, which brings up a final point.
The end of the last movement was simply too fast. While it is understandable that a brisk performance throughout would require the end to really move along, van Zweden set a pace that blurred the musical lines to the point that they were indistinguishable. Still, it was a thrilling and definitive performance of one of the great works of music.
The program started off with a surprise. Because of the Cliburn competition, the Metroplex is used to hearing dazzling young pianists, but 15-year-old Conrad Tao really set a new high standard. Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is a high-energy piece and Tao played it for all it is worth. His performance was clean and stylish. DSO principal trumpeter Ryan Anthony played the secondary solo part with his usual polish and accuracy. Too bad Shostakovich reduced the trumpet part to such a bare minimum. I eagerly await hearing Anthony in a concerto of his own.