So far in 2014, The Dallas Symphony Orchestra has been solidly stuck in the late Romantic period. Of the five pieces the orchestra performed last week and this, four were composed in the final two decades of the 19th century.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the late 1800s, post-Beethoven and pre-20th-century experimentation, composers like Mahler and Tchaikovsky played with big, muscular orchestras and increasingly complex harmonies and textures. If you're looking for music that soars and sweeps, sings and sobs and has an uncanny ability to tug at heartstrings, the late Romantics are where it's at.
This is music that people know and love (read: ticket sales), which could explain its recent prominance. For the last two weekends, concerts have opened with orchestra members reminding us it's time to renew our subscriptions. If anyone was waffling about whether to re-up, the DSO's recent performances gave a clear message: "You might think you've heard this music before, but not like this. Get ready to be blown away (and pull out those wallets), because if you miss what we're bringing to this stage, you'll regret it."
The hall was packed last weekend for Dvorak's New World Symphony. The orchestra was recording the piece live, proving once again Murphy's law is no joke (If you record it, the audience will cough. And drop things. And cough some more). Seemingly oblivious to noises in the hall, the DSO played with intense focus and energy, two characteristics Jaap van Zweden consistently brings to the podium.
I sat next to a 16-year-old German exchange student with dark lipstick, bleached hair and faux Doc Martens during the Dvorak. She told me during intermission that yes, she was pretty homesick and that living in Texas has been "really wild." But coming to the symphony, she said, reminds her of home. She tapped her fingers in her lap as the familiar strains of Dvorak washed over us. It's nostalgic music, and the DSO's bold, meticulously crafted melodies stung with emotional depth.
The first half of this week's program is harder to swallow, but not initially. Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes is a gorgeous opener. The first movement, "Dawn," shimmered magically last night, showing off the orchestra's diverse strengths. The rest of the first half was dominated by Mahler's somewhat tedious song-cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In a preview video, Jaap van Zweden does his best to sell the piece, but last night it felt interminable, despite a strong performance from baritone Matthias Goerne.
The reward for making it through the Mahler, in addition to a stiff drink during intermission, is the DSO's stunning performance of Brahms' Fourth symphony. Last night, the first movement was near-perfect: the pace was energetic but not rushed, the orchestra was in sync, in tune, and played with precision and captivating artistry. In contrast to the Mahler, the 40-minute work flew by, over long before I was ready for it to be.
The thing about 19th-century art is that great works are worth your time. Going to a museum to see a Monet or Gauguin painting in person can be a transformational experience: the colors are vivid, the scale not what you expected. Music is a different animal. Great masterworks are not always performed masterfully, and hearing a shoddy version is a waste of time. But when it is done really well -- as the DSO has both last weekend and last night -- it becomes something great: An unmissable work of art.