Sometimes a symphony orchestra engulfs its audience in enormous sounds and dramatic gestures (take Dallas Symphony Orchestra performance of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, for example). Last weekend, Jaap van Zweden and the DSO took a different approach, quietly demanding attention with a pared-down orchestra and simple, but sharp, programming. The result was consistently surprising and perfectly charming.
Friday evening's Classically themed concert began with a stunning performance of Haydn's Oxford Symphony (No. 92 in G Major). Attendees might have noticed the diminished size of the orchestra and the unusual seating pattern, with violins seated to both the right and left of the conductor. The size and distribution of the orchestra mimicked that of 18th-century orchestras, creating a historically appropriate orchestral force. The moveable part of the Meyerson's ceiling - that spaceship-looking canopy thing typically hanging above - was dropped low, producing a more intimate acoustical environment.
In music history textbooks, Haydn often comes across as a bit boring - especially in contrast to his more fiery Viennese counterparts, Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn's career, rather than being defined by international fame, was largely spent in the service of a wealthy family in Vienna's outer countryside. Details of the composer's personal life are often downplayed, with the exception of brief allusions to what is usually referred to as "an unhappy marriage." "Elegant" and "simple" are overused and somewhat dry terms that seem to infect discussions of Haydn's symphonies. When performed with sensitivity, however, Haydn's music reveals emotional depth beneath the clean, perfectly crafted themes.
On Friday, Jaap van Zweden conducted Haydn with massive attention to detail. His face was stern and his movements sharp as always, but one could also sense an undercurrent of playfulness in his body. Silences following the decay at the end of phrases were perfectly audible in the hall, and the orchestra - in particular the woodwind section - performed with fantastic tone and artistry and precise execution.
Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, a 19th-century work inspired by Mozart, featured a wildly virtuosic performance by cellist Johannes Moser. In addition to flying through technically challenging passages, Moser brought a kind of spontaneity to the piece, obviously engaging with the violins and conductor.
After intermission, the DSO presented one of Mozart's most recognizable and frequently performed symphonies. For those familiar with this work, Jaap van Zweden's artistic choices in terms of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and voicing of chords were fresh and somewhat surprising. In the development of the first movement, familiar harmonic modulations felt fresh and unpredictable. The orchestra presented Mozart with the kind of precision Haydn most likely would have admired in his young colleague, and the sort of wild passion Tchaikovsky adored. For those in the audience who might have been hearing this piece live for the first time, lucky you!
Next weekend Jaap van Zweden will conduct the final subscription series concert of the 2011/2012 season. Don't miss a chance to hear what he and the DSO can do with Beethoven when they present the composer's only opera, Fidelio, in concert. The DSO will only present the concert twice (May 11th and 13th), so snag a ticket here.