Dallas Symphony, van Zweden offer a mixed bag of Bruckner and Tchaikovsky

Fri Feb 03, 2017 at 12:48 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay
Alisa Weilerstein performed Tchaikovsky's

Alisa Weilerstein performed Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” with Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

The pairing of two titans of late romanticism—Tchaikovsky and Bruckner—looked promising enough Thursday night as music director Jaap van Zweden returned to the podium of the Dallas Symphony for the first time since October. Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra offers a succinct study in light, while Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, written at almost the same moment in history, serves up an epic hour-long pilgrimage and tribute to Wagner. The placement of the two on the same program promised an interesting contrast in style and approach.

That promise evaporated rather quickly, however, as van Zweden, joined by soloist Alisa Weilerstein, introduced an ultimately bland reading of the Tchaikovsky. In spite of Tchaikovsky’s transparent orchestration, van Zweden opened with a heavy, almost sullen tone from the strings, generally overwhelming the elegantly colorful backdrop of winds.

This is not the brooding Tchaikovsky of the symphonies and overtures, but rather the personable, dashing Tchaikvosky of the ballet scores; although Weilerstein skated effortlessly through the virtuoso tidbits, neither she nor van Zweden seemed very interested in the humor and dash of this work. Equally significantly, Weilerstein failed to project much in the way of richness of tone or depth; the performance ultimately failed to demonstrate a meaningful connection on the part of conductor or soloist with this unique segment of the romantic concerto repertoire.

Scholars and connoisseurs alike have, for the past century, vacillated between viewing Bruckner as an advance scout for Mahler or as a genius in his own right. As of 2017, after many decades in which he has been a fairly constant presence in the international symphonic repertoire, Bruckner clearly stands as an inspired creator of symphonic effects, with the ability to take audiences to the mountaintop, as well as a brave innovator who married Wagnerian lyricism and harmonies to the symphonic structure inherited from Beethoven. Unfortunately, for some Bruckner’s inability to escape the organ loft and almost mannered sequential modulations make the journey from one mountain range to another often tedious.

That said, any performance of a Bruckner symphony is an event; the sheer audacity of Bruckner’s vision as well as the sublime moments he wanders into are, to say the least, fascinating for the listener who can stay awake as the composer struggles to squeeze his ideas into meaningful form.

That bravery calls for equal audacity from the conductor, which was what was missing from van Zweden’s reading of the Seventh Symphony on Thursday. Fine moments abounded—the other-worldly introduction alone was worth turning out for—but the orchestral sound often lacked the bite and texture needed to pull off this exercise in orchestral grandeur. Even the potentially hair-raising Scherzo, performed at a pedestrian pace, failed to rise to its potential. Ultimately, van Zweden and the orchestra managed an acceptably competent rendition of this demanding score, without producing real excitement.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday. mydso.com; 214-692-0203.

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