The Dallas Symphony and music director Jaap van Zweden indulge, this weekend, in the time-honored classical music programming tactic of matching a new, unfamiliar work with a standard box office cash cow — in this case, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
This strategy can, and often does, result in an odd evening in which a packed house fidgets through a piece of music they would just as soon not hear while waiting for their dose of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven after intermission. Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center, the result was a fascinating, engaging and meaningful program that not only made sense, but, judging from the enthusiastic audience reaction, was broadly satisfying to everybody on every level.
The evening opened with Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a work, which, while revered within the academic and professional musical establishment, has never gained much of a foothold with the larger audience in the way that other works from the middle 20th century have — for example, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto or Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
Thursday night’s performance with Greek-born violinist Leonidas Kavakos made an impressively strong case for the work, however, from the hypnotically mysterious opening moments through the explosive modernisms and mood swings that follow. Kavakos, grimly business-like in demeanor on stage, serves this masterpiece up with a brilliant combination of technical perfection and intellectual insight.
After intermission, conductor Van Zweden and the orchestra got down to the business of the world premiere of Dutch composer John Borstlap’s evocative Solemn Night Music, a joint commission by the Dallas Symphony, Van Zweden and the Hong Kong Symphony. Completed just last year, the work could as easily have been written in 1905; its combination of stringent, involved counterpoint with arching lyricism and a fine sense of traditional orchestral color brought to mind Richard Strauss, with hints of Elgar and Mahler. Rather than just filling space on the program, Solemn Night Music provided a superb preface to the main draw of the evening, which followed immediately.
Beethoven’s Fifth is, well, Beethoven’s Fifth — possibly the most beloved and certainly one of the most well-known musical works ever created. One of my local colleagues previously used the word “electrifying” to characterize an earlier performance of this work by Van Zweden and the DSO, and I can’t think of a better way to describe what happens when this conductor takes on this work, combining a firm grasp of the architecture of the work with the constantly — and, after thousands of performances over two centuries — still arresting effects. Van Zweden very obviously exploited the thrill-power of one of the best horn sections in the world at key moments; let’s just hope he doesn’t take that unique asset of this orchestra with him to New York.