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Van Zweden’s Farewell Season At The DSO: Discuss.


by Jerome Weeks 17 Feb 2017

Recently, the Dallas Symphony announced its next season, starting this fall. There’s no way it wasn’t going to be special. It’s music director Jaap van Zweden’s farewell season before he takes over the New York Philharmonic. But local All Things Considered host sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks to find out why this particular line-up of concerts was getting attention in classical music circles.

Jerome, even I know what this is. It’s the theme from ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

JW Riiiight. It’s the theme from ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

I’m kidding. It’s Beethoven’s Ninth. And this is Bach. And let’s see who else is on the season. There’s more Beethoven, there’s Rachmaninoff, there’s Mozart. What I’m saying is – aren’t these what symphony orchestras play all the time? Why are people excited about this season?

JWYou’re right. These works are like some of the basic building blocks of Western classical music. But you generally don’t get to hear ALL of them in a single season. Like, that Bach you played, that’s his 5th Brandenburg concerto. And the DSO is going to play all six in a single program. As for Beethoven? There are three Beethoven symphonies scheduled, plus two of his piano concertos and two of his overtures. We also get Debussy’s ‘La Mer,’ Prokofiev’s ‘Sinfonia concertante‘ and his ‘Classical Symphony,’ plus Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony.

Obviously, there’s a spirit of celebration in all this. Van Zweden has more or less crammed the season with glorious crowd pleasers. He’s playing the classical music version of your favorite dance party DJ.

Yeah, I noticed that Beethoven’s Ninth – the ‘Ode to Joy’ – has been saved for van Zweden’s very last concert next May. But that’s getting to be a cliché, isn’t it? Celebrating just about any special occasion by playing the ‘Ode to Joy’? I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re playing it when they open new supermarkets.

JWWell, yes, some of the programming choices are not all that original. For instance, this next season marks the 40th anniversary of the Lay Family Organ in the Meyerson. So we have concerts with organ music. Which is welcome, they need to use that tremendous instrument more. But inevitably, perhaps, we’re getting the single, grandest, best-known, best-loved, most-adapted, orchestral piece ever composed for the organ. Which, of course, is Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3.
Jaap giving downbeat_Sylvia Elzafon

Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

Wow. Listening to that, though, that’s pretty impressive. I wonder – what’s wrong with a season of crowd pleasers?

JWOh yeah, it’s gorgeous. There’s nothing wrong with crowd pleasers, I suppose – except, as you noted when we started, that means these works are pretty familiar. Most everyone’s heard them. Even you’ve heard some of them.

So if you’re going to program music like this, you gotta bring something fresh to it. It’s like a theater company staging a popular Shakespeare comedy like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ There’s nothing wrong with the choice per se. But it becomes a challenge: What are they going to do to make it come alive – this time?

Which brings up something interesting about the season. Van Zweden isn’t conducting everything we’ve mentioned — he doesn’t conduct every concert in any season. But the music he’s chosen to conduct personally here is overwhelmingly by the great German and Austrian composers: Mozart, Wagner, Bruckner, Schumann, Beethoven.

That’s the music, van Zweden said, ten years ago, he thought the DSO needed to learn. That’s the music he was going to drill into them, the German tradition.

JWRight. So this season is like a victory lap. Van Zweden is showing us what he’s accomplished with this orchestra. They can climb these Alpine mountains now. I mean, he’s chosen biiiiig thundering works – symphonies with a chorus and soloists, like Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Second Symphony. I mean, Mahler’s Second is so big, it’s typically released on two CDs, not one. And we’re also getting an orchestral version of  Wagner’s opera, ‘Die Walkure’ — the whole thing, all three acts.

Yeah, but among some New York critics, the one’s I’ve seen online, that’s been the knock against van Zweden. He’s too tied to this kind of music. The big traditional, mostly Germanic kind. He doesn’t really welcome new works.

JWThat’s why I think van Zweden’s making a point by bookending the season the way he has. It opens with the elegy from Steven Stucky’s ‘August 4, 1964′ — the Grammy-nominated work van Zweden debuted in his first season here. A little reminder. And his very last concert, the one with Beethoven’s Ninth? It opens with a world premiere of a violin concerto by the American composer Jonathan Leshnoff.

So – he can do classic, he can do new.

Top photo: Mark Kitaoka.

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