One of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's great strengths, namely achieving extreme dynamic range in its playing, was showcased in this program. Music Director Jaap van Zweden’s penchant for loudness – big climaxes, thick textures bursting at the seams with sinuous clarity – was brought off brilliantly in a second half comprising two works by Ravel, the Daphnis et Chloé Suite no. 2 and Boléro. The orchestra’s delicate side was on display in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467, while Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande occupied an uncomfortable middle ground.
Saturday’s concert was “almost” in a couple of respects: it consisted almost entirely of French music, and it was almost beyond criticism. The addition of Mozart’s concerto was a smart choice; its clarity and radiance was a nice complement to the lush, yet emotionally transparent, scores of Fauré and Ravel. (The program notes’ assertion that “Mr. Lortie, who is French Canadian…brings a further French accent to this Viennese jewel” doesn’t make Dallasites seem terribly cosmopolitan, though.) Geographically themed programs are only, perhaps unfairly, applied to composers of certain countries; no one would accuse a Saint-Saëns' concerto, a Leonore Overture, and a Brahms symphony of comprising an incomplete German program.
The other “almost” (that the evening’s performances verged on faultless) was a sign of programming choices that fit this ensemble, as well as the high caliber of work Maestro van Zweden has done with these players. The myriad special effects brought to bear on the Daphnis et Chloé Suite, and the historically-informed, yet stylish and modern presentation of the Mozart are the bread and butter of this orchestra. The imperfections in this concert, the less than magical Fauré, and milliseconds of imperfect brass playing in the Ravel, only stood out because everything else was so stellar.
Of the two suites on the program excerpted from other genres, Pelléas, incidental music to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, provides decidedly less interest as concert music than Ravel’s ballet. Especially when compared with the fireworks present throughout the rest of the evening, the Fauré made for a slightly drowsy opener. Without a sense of radiant calm, this music can lapse into sounding a little too casual. The exception this evening was the famous Sicilienne, which achieved that balance, though even if it felt a little too studied.
Mr. Lortie and the DSO shone in the Mozart, another of this evening’s performances whose near-perfection exposed the smallest of issues. Their delicate approach was effective, but nearly compromised the expression of certain themes. Violins occasionally seemed to be underplaying, as if to say “this moment would be played with gusto and majesty on period instruments, but we’re not sure it would be historically accurate to play above x decibels.” The result was a lighthearted quality to fortes that may have achieved a similar dynamic as was heard in late 18th century Vienna, yet failed to capture the spirit of that dynamic. Mr. Lortie’s stately approach and his manner of letting the ends of phrases melt away set up powerful contrasts on the few occasions he opted for a more impulsive, assertive style. His original cadenzas were witty and sensitive, adding, if not a “French accent”, a bit of extroversion to cap off the first half of the concert.
The two Ravel works in the second half seemed designed to make up for the relatively understated pairing of Fauré and Mozart. Both the music from Daphnis et Chloé and Boléro provided ample opportunity for solos, most memorably by principal flutist Demarre McGill. The decision not to use the choral part typically heard in the Suite robbed the music of some of its modal, Greek-inspired flavor; perhaps the second half could have led off with another work incorporating voices, in order to make the use of a chorus worthwhile. In any case, this was a thrilling performance, with no detail left unrealized. After such a cacophonous ending to Daphnis, Boléro felt like an encore rather than an insistent, ticking time bomb, but it was still a fun ride.