"This is going to be wild," the man seated next to me warned as I settled into my seat after intermission at last night's Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. It was an accurate prediction. The DSO and Maestro Jaap van Zweden opened their 2013/2014 season Thursday with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony that served as a reminder of just how impressive and intense this orchestra can be when it is really "on."
Tchaikovsky's Fifth is a dramatic piece of music that opens with a hushed, mournful melody in E minor and slowly marches and builds towards huge climaxes. I love it. It is an irresistible piece of 19th-century Romanticism and it represents Tchaikovsky's emotionalism at its best. Wild, however, it is not. Stravinsky wrote wild music. There is an element of the wild in Beethoven's late symphonies. But all in all, while Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is moving and heart-wrenching, it is pretty standard symphonic stuff.
During last night's performance, however, there was nothing standard in the communication of Tchaikovsky's emotions. Every phrase swelled and sighed. As is characteristic of Van Zweden's orchestra, dynamics were perfectly controlled; the quietest moments were filled with a boiling intensity that grabbed the hall's attention and held it, rapt, until the Maestro let his horns loose on the room, blasting the audience with fantastic blazing colors and sounds. The last movement was taken at a dangerously quick tempo. If a lesser orchestra had attempted that pace, they would have strained and sweated. The DSO pulled it off with equal parts fury and grace.
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When meticulous preparation pays off -- as it did during last night's Tchaikovsky -- the orchestra is able to tackle technical challenges without getting bogged down in them, allowing artistry and the communication of emotions to rise to the surface. Unfortunately, the orchestra was less successful at moving past obsessive attention to detail during the first half of the evening.
The program opened with Hector Berlioz' Les Nuits d'été, a song-cycle for mezzo-soprano and smallish orchestra. The text, a French poem by Théophile Gautier, is full of all the cliches of 19th-century romanticism -- singing birds, ghosts of dead roses and endless pining after absent lovers. The orchestra played with incredible dynamic restraint, but they were so quiet that they were almost stifled. The flute fluttered at every right moment and both orchestra and soloist (Annalisa Stroppa) had some lovely shimmering moments, but overall the performance seemed a bit stuck in the throat. Maybe it was opening night jitters.
Emotionalism is dangerous stuff in art. Handled poorly, it can become sappy and sentimental or, worse yet, stilted and choked. The trick is to communicate all the intense extremes of human emotion without defaulting to caricature. When that happens, it really is wild.