It was your standard evening at the symphony: a brief standalone selection for orchestra, a flashy concerto, and, after intermission, a weighty symphonic masterpiece. Well, it seemed so on paper at least. The most recent series of concerts by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra presented three popular works in reverse-chronological order, which can be one of the more effective – and underexploited – approaches to programming. Not only that, but the evening started with the most frenetic of the pieces, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and closed anticlimactically (insert hackneyed T.S. Eliot quote here) with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and its Adagio final movement. In between those two works came Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, for which Severin von Eckardstein joined Maestro Jaap van Zweden and the DSO.

Several threads tied these works together to justify their seemingly bizarre arrangement. Mr. van Zweden went in head-first, pairing two works with highly percussive aspects; as he was quoted in the program notes, “The Adams is motoric, much in the same way that Prokofiev’s Third Concerto is motoric…Both works have the element of movement based on machines.” Prokofiev, after showing the world his rebellious side in his early pieces, drew on a strong tradition of Russian Romantic writing in his mature works. Although they seem to hail from different planets, he was only two generations younger than Tchaikovsky, born two years prior to the older master’s untimely death.

The combination of two “motoric” works in the first half worked to the advantage of both. Adams’ almost jazzy brand of minimalism makes for an exhilarating curtain-raiser, and his piece was given a superb performance tonight. The rate of change in the colors and moods of this music also makes it more accessible when juxtaposed with a coloristic masterpiece like the Prokofiev concerto. Unlike many other minimalist works, such as many by Philip Glass or even Adams’s own Phrygian Gates, Short Ride... does not depend so much on kaleidoscopic, large-scale changes in harmony, but rather on rhythmic propulsion and a familiar variety of instrumental colors, creatively employed.

The audience having thus been primed for the modern side of Prokofiev, the more conventional nature of his Piano Concerto no. 3 came to light. Mr. von Eckardstein’s performance was refined and, especially for Prokofiev, understated. Prokofiev’s orchestral writing in this piece rarely affronts the listener with its compositional virtuosity, and Mr. von Eckardstein took the same approach in interpreting the solo part. He certainly has the technical prowess to stun audiences, and this piece can be a real vehicle by which to do so. Instead, he eschewed showmanship in favor of integrating the solo part more into the orchestral texture, allowing only the occasional outburst.

Just as the Adams provided a common denominator with the motoric qualities of the Prokofiev concerto, the latter’s Romanticism and touches of folk melodies similarly brought out more subtle shades in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, “Pathétique”. Coming as it did on this program after two twentieth-century works, the opening bassoon solo seemed at least a peripheral influence on Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring opens in the same fashion. Mr. van Zweden brought out a warmth of sound in the strings that contrasted hugely with the entire first half of the program, and paced his reading of this work brilliantly. So as not to overdo the Romantic side of the first movement, his reading was more deliberate, the legato less intense and the sweeping gestures quick to subside once more into mystery and brooding.

The second movement emphasized simplicity and charm above all else. Its 5/4 meter can strike modern audiences as strangely progressive as far as Tchaikovsky is concerned, but this time signature is not uncommon in Russian folk music, and to draw attention to its imbalanced feel would be to miss the point. Mr. van Zweden sculpted waves of sound that constantly overlapped one another, creating a gracefully buoyant atmosphere. The Scherzo was a virtual game of chicken between Mr. van Zweden and the DSO, he pushing the tempo ever faster, and they meeting his every demand with aplomb. After a thrilling accelerando to cap the movement, the slow Finale was begun attacca, an arresting interpretation of the taut harmonies with which Tchaikovsky infuses the first chords. (Think: that moment of simultaneous terror and suspended reality when Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote, or Tom Cat runs off a precipice and, legs still moving in midair, all of a sudden comes to grasp his predicament.) This confessional final movement provided a highly personal afterword to the whole concert, a most difficult interpretive feat that, after all the flair and excitement thus far, was all the more poignant.

****1