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SCRUTINY | Jaap Van Zweden Leaves The Dallas Symphony Orchestra With An Emotional Final Bow

By Paul E. Robinson on June 4, 2018

(Photo: Sylvia Elzafon)
(Photo: Sylvia Elzafon)

Dallas Symphony Orchestra with Jaap Van Zweden (music director), Alexander Kerr (violin), Ellie Dehn (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Dallas Symphony Chorus (Joshua Habermann, director) at Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, TX. May 26, 2018

DALLAS, TX — Last week marked a momentous occasion in Dallas. After a tenure of ten years, Dutch-born maestro Jaap van Zweden was conducting his farewell concert as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO); in recognition of his contributions to the cultural life of the city, the lights of many of its tallest buildings turned orange – orange is the signature colour in the orchestra’s logo — and the mayor of Dallas appeared on stage to present van Zweden with a commemorative plaque. Most would agree that during his time in Dallas, Jaap van Zweden has brought a fine regional orchestra to international prominence, and that this is reason enough to pay him tribute as he leaves to take up the reins of the New York Philharmonic.

But there is so much more. Maestro van Zweden is surely one of the greatest conductors of his generation. Last week he stunned local audiences with a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre in its entirety. This week the featured work was the beloved Beethoven Ninth Symphony, along with the premiere of a new violin concerto by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. Again, the performances, particularly that of the Ninth Symphony, enthralled the audience.

Jonathan Leshnoff, a Professor of Music at Townson University near Baltimore, is one of the America’s most widely performed composers. More than 60 orchestras have played his music and Naxos, to date, has released four CDs featuring some of his major works. Accessibility is a primary characteristic of Leshnoff’s music, with lots of good tunes and infectious rhythms, and Violin Concerto No. 2 is no exception. The first movement, in which the soloist plays almost constantly, has relentless energy. The slow, highly lyrical second movement features a haunting dialogue between the solo violin and cellos. The brief scherzo movement is witty and light as a feather, and the last movement reverts to the perpetual motion energy of the first. A very effective piece, DSO’s concertmaster Alexander Kerr played it with virtuosity and commitment.

That said, it was really Jaap van Zweden’s night and he didn’t disappoint, giving us a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth both powerful and totally engrossing from beginning to end – and that is saying something for a piece as familiar as this.

It seems to me that what makes Jaap van Zweden’s performances so special is the combination of passion and attention to detail. While many conductors have one or the other of these characteristics, few bring both to their work. Van Zweden takes nothing for granted in the music he conducts. That he may have conducted a piece dozens of times doesn’t mean that he’s on automatic pilot the next time. He is a man who studies and re-studies the score to make sure he really understands what the composer had in mind. In the case of the Beethoven Ninth, every conductor knows “how it goes” but there are literally dozens of problems, many having to do with balance, to be solved before even attempting to perform it. Van Zweden believes strongly that if a composer writes a passage for flute or oboe or viola, the instrument is meant to be heard. Easy to say, but almost impossible to realize in a work by a composer who was almost completely deaf when he wrote the music, and in an age when composers seldom left us the kind of detail concerning dynamics in their scores that is commonplace today.

A case in point in the Beethoven Ninth is the beginning of the recapitulation in the first movement. Of course, the most important musical element here must be the recapitulation of the main theme of the movement. We heard it in the very opening of the movement played pianissimo by the strings. But now, in the recapitulation, the strings play it again, this time fortissimo. The problem is that the rest of the orchestra is playing sustained notes, also marked fortissimo. If the trumpets, timpani etc. really play fortissimo, there is no way anyone could possibly hear what the strings are playing; they will be rendered inaudible by their more powerful colleagues. This is the great climax of the first movement and there can be no doubt about two things: Beethoven meant it to be shattering and he meant the main theme in the strings to be heard. But to accomplish these two things at the same time is almost impossible. What is a conductor to do? Over the years, conductors have come up with all sorts of solutions. The one most commonly used is to have the musicians with the sustaining notes play much less than fortissimo to allow the strings to come through with their important tune, then have the rest of the orchestra make a huge crescendo at the end of each statement of the tune. This solution has always struck me personally as both crude and stylistically wrong.

On this night, Van Zweden came up with a different solution. He scaled back the fortissimo for all except the strings at the beginning of the recapitulation and the strings came through clearly with their main theme. This he followed up, not with a general extended crescendo, but with a briefer and near-cataclysmic crescendo, mainly in the timpani. This pattern was extended through the entire passage. With this approach, both of Beethoven’s goals were realized: the main theme could be heard, and the climax of the movement was as hair-raising as it was intended to be. Special kudos to timpanist Brian Jones for playing like a man possessed. His playing in the second movement Scherzo was just as exciting.

(Photo: Tracy Martin)
(Photo: Tracy Martin)

I have gone on at some length about how van Zweden handled the first movement recapitulation because it was typical of his approach to the entire symphony. I would guess that his conducting score is filled with hundreds of pencilled-in notations regarding dynamics, all for the purpose of providing greater clarity in the music. And it was amazing. I don’t believe I have ever heard so much detail in any performance of the Ninth Symphony; rarely heard flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon parts came through with remarkable clarity. The challenge for any conductor is how to obtain such clarity without losing the inherent power and energy of the score, and van Zweden met it with extraordinary skill. The same challenge arises when the choir joins the orchestral forces in the last movement. In this wonderful performance, instead of what is often heard as a mish-mash of choral sound, van Zweden gave us a vast dynamic range, enormous power and clarity of texture.

Van Zweden’s tempo in the first movement was slow, in the Scherzo very fast, and in the third movement a little faster than customary, in spite of which the first violins seemed to have plenty of time for their trickier variations. The performance, on the whole, was beautiful if somewhat dry-eyed. Other conductors tend to slow up in the final pages of the third movement but not van Zweden. Beethoven didn’t explicitly ask for any meno mosso, so van Zweden keeps the music moving forward. This approach struck me as somewhat rigid and unyielding.

Van Zweden also had some fresh ideas about the solo voices in the last movement. Leading off, baritone Matthias Goerne gave us a rendering of “O Freunde etc.” as free as I have ever heard it. Goerne, who was van Zweden’s magnificent Wotan in the Ring cycle they recorded together for Naxos in Hong Kong, is also one of the world’s great lieder singers. It seemed to me that what he brought here to his Beethoven recitative was the art of the lieder singer, with an uncommon attention to the meaning of the words – in fact, to each word. This approach was replicated by the other soloists and by the choir. We heard both great singing and a remarkable rendering of the meaning of Schiller’s text.

At the end of the performance, the audience erupted in an explosion of applause and bravos. Finally, Jaap van Zweden stepped onto the podium once more to do what he had rarely done before during his ten years in Dallas: he spoke to the audience. It would have helped to make a microphone available, but most of what he had to say was clear enough. He went on at some length thanking everyone he could think of to thank and paying special tribute to those who had made the Meyerson Symphony Center a reality. Van Zweden knows better than anyone that he is leaving one of the great concert halls in the world for one that is among the worst.

As mentioned earlier, Jaap van Zweden is leaving behind a much better orchestra in Dallas than he found on his arrival. His talent and experience had a lot to do with its improvement, as did his “tough love”. By all accounts, the maestro was a demanding taskmaster in rehearsal and undoubtedly alienated some players; others, nevertheless, appreciated his seriousness and his high standards. The maestro also made personnel changes – always a painful matter – among the most important of which were the engagement of concertmaster Alexander Kerr, co-concertmaster Nathan Olson and associate concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert. Van Zweden, who had been concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for many years, has a profound understanding of string playing. He absolutely transformed the string sound of the Dallas Symphony. Other positive changes included the addition of principal bassoon Ted Soluri, principal flute David Buck and principal trombone Barry Hearn.

To my ears, there was an extraordinary improvement in the DSO horn section over van Zweden’s tenure. Gregory Hustis had led it with distinction for many years, but early in van Zweden’s tenure, Jennifer Montone joined the section. From her earliest performances it was clear that a fine artist had joined the orchestra; unfortunately, the DSO was unable to keep her, and she is now principal horn in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Montone’s post was filled by the equally gifted David Cooper, who stayed long enough to become principal horn of the DSO. Then, clearly destined for bigger things, he left last year to take on the position of principal horn with the Berlin Philharmonic. During their time in Dallas, these great players certainly helped improve the DSO.

Unfortunately, as good as it is, the Dallas Symphony remains a second-tier orchestra in the United States and can only hold the greatest players for a few years as they make their way towards the top. The same could be said of its conductors. While Jaap van Zweden made a difference in Dallas, there was never any doubt that he was destined for the directorship of one of the world’s top orchestras.

While it is always a difficult task to find the right music director for an orchestra, it is, in this case, even more difficult because both the members of the orchestra and the audience have come to expect the best. It could be argued that no one of Jaap van Zweden’s stature is going to want to come to Dallas, and whoever succeeds him is going to find musicians and audiences who judge him or her inadequate compared to what they have come to expect. One could say that the van Zweden who came to Dallas in 2007 is not the van Zweden who is leaving in 2018, but there is no denying that he has raised the bar and it will be a challenge to replace him.

But just this week, the conductor search committee of the DSO made their choice: the 59-year-old Italian conductor Fabio Luisi is to be the new music director. Luisi is General Music Director of the Zurich Opera, principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and music director of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, one of Italy’s major music festivals. Given all his European commitments Luisi won’t officially take up his Dallas post until the 2020-2021 season.

Luisi is a vastly experienced conductor equally at home in opera and concert. In fact, he promises to present concert versions of full-length operas every season in Dallas. It remains to be seen whether Luisi will be able to galvanize the DSO as van Zweden did so effectively in the past ten years. It is also unclear whether Luisi will be able to give Dallas audiences a wider repertoire than van Zweden. This was one of the areas in which Jaap van Zweden disappointed, especially with respect to music by American composers. Finally, it is fair to wonder whether Luisi is prepared to commit the time needed to make a difference in Dallas.

Jaap van Zweden is on his way to the Big Time, and while I am sure the Dallas musicians and audience members wish him well, a Golden Age is probably behind them and a period of either stasis or slow re-building under Fabio Luisi likely lies ahead.

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