Van Zweden returns to Dallas Symphony for a thrilling and triumphant Mahler First

Fri Mar 15, 2019 at 12:27 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Jaap van Zweden conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in music of Schumann and Mahler Thursday night.

Throughout Jaap van Zweden’s recently completed decade as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra outstanding performances of Mahler were invariable highlights. Now music director of the New York Philharmonic, van Zweden returned to the podium at Meyerson Symphony Center Thursday as conductor laureate, with an intense and dramatic reading of Mahler’s First Symphony. 

Before turning to Mahler, however, van Zweden (eschewing an overture or curtain-raiser) launched the concert with Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, joined by soloist Louis Lortie. 

Louis Lortie

For all its glories and perfection of form, this concerto challenges conductor and soloist to balance the sparkling virtuosity of the piano part with the musical depth of the work overall. Pianist Lortie provided generous doses of both, tossing off the icy brilliance of the introductory piano cascade before moving gently into the almost mournful lyricism of the main theme. The first movement alternates this lament with a rich, arching synthesis of piano and orchestra; van Zweden guided the orchestra (with reduced string section) through the dramatic mood shifts. As the movement drew to a close, Lortie eased into the cadenza with a lingering rubato before roaring into the climactic moment.

The concerto takes on the character of a chamber work in the middle movement, where van Zweden obligingly followed Lortie’s assertive yet flexible tempos. A hint of the opening motif leads into the final movement, where Lortie continued to demonstrate the combination of power and technical dexterity. Here, however, although the captivating momentum continued, the performance took on a harried  quality in the rush to the closing bars

Mahler’s First Symphony, composed in 1889, reveals a young composer still very much under the shadow of traditional four-movement structure; within those four movements, however, he managed effects that continue to thrill 130 years later. 

Van Zweden quickly reminded the audience of his ability as a conductor and Mahler interpreter, turning the Dallas Symphony into a superb medium for realization of Mahler’s genius—and aided by the acoustically superb environment of the Meyerson Symphony Center.

The orchestra and the room proved perfect for the ethereal opening. There was an almost fragile glow from the strings—delivered flawlessly—in which the composer creates a sense of distance and arrival before at last breaking into the flowing, song-like main theme, which in turn rises to the first of this work’s moments of ecstasy.

While earlier romantic composers had evolved Haydn’s symphonic minuet movements into soaring scherzos, Mahler turned back to the inspiration of folk dance for his second movement, here a heavy-footed peasant dance performed with muscular vigor by the Dallas Symphony strings. The soft timpani stroke that opens the third movement began a journey through a lullaby that turns into a funeral march, skillfully paced by van Zweden. 

The final movement encapsulates and predicts further realization of Mahler’s expansive symphonic vision. Momentously announced by a cymbal crash, the movement at first presents a glowing cantalina, delivered with subtle gentleness by the strings. Throughout the movement, van Zweden husbanded the wealth of Mahler’s symphonic effects, luring the audience to the first false climax, creating a sense of logic in the rich layers of synthesis and ideas that follow. Only then did van Zweden unleash the full volume of the orchestra, landing perfectly in the burnished grandeur—illuminated by the pronouncement of the Dallas Symphony horn section—of the final moments.

Van Zweden has a gift for turning any concert into an event; in the symphonies of Mahler, he produces, as the composer intended, the sense of entering an exhilarating universe of sorrow and ecstasy.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerson Symphony Center.; 214-692-0203.

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