The fifth year of the Jaap van Zweden era at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra began this weekend with a program comprising audience favorites both flashy and serene. According to the printed program notes Mr. van Zweden, Music Director since 2008, selected “a program that demonstrates the superb technical and musical heights our orchestra has reached under his baton.” Modest, perhaps not, but warranted, definitely. Joined by guest pianist Joaquín Achúcarro, the DSO performed works by Berlioz, Schumann, Debussy, and Respighi that served as something of a report card for the orchestra under Maestro van Zweden.

On paper, this was a fascinating program. Framed by two brilliant Rome-themed works, the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, were two subtler masterpieces, the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor and Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The works were varied in inspiration, ranging from music excerpted out of Berlioz’s biographical opera Benvenuto Cellini (the basis for the overture); to the abstract Schumann concerto, based heavily on Classical models; to the Debussy, loosely tied to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé; and finally to the programmatic Pines of Rome, a tone poem evoking the natural settings, human activity, and aura of the Eternal City.

Logistical and musical realities, however, precluded the works on the program from truly fitting together. It seemed to take far longer than usual to move the piano into place between the Berlioz and the Schumann, causing a lull after the exciting conclusion of the Roman Carnival Overture. Precisely the opposite issue plagued the second half, with the ethereal final strains of Debussy virtually still ringing as Mr. van Zweden launched into the brusque first bars of Respighi. Of course, there is no reason for any first-rate works of music such as these to be left off of a program simply because they are dissimilar to one another, but some curatorial discretion would help. It was like walking into a museum gallery to find in one room a vibrant Goya as well as an understated piece by Hopper, the latter poorly illuminated and partially obscured by a column; and in the next room a small pencil sketch sharing a wall with Guernica. All of them worthwhile, but a careful balance must be struck.

As a showcase for the orchestra’s many strengths, the performance – I heard Saturday’s concert – was a success. The DSO are as precise and consistent an ensemble as you’ll hear, and the Berlioz and Respighi suited them perfectly. The Roman Carnival Overture was Berlioz’s attempt to rescue from impending obscurity – and generate some revenue out of – musical fragments from an unsuccessful opera he had written. It is tuneful, exciting, and virtuosic, a winning combination for this group under the vigorous and clear baton of Mr. van Zweden.

The Schumann concerto was all about Mr. Achúcarro, the legendary Spanish pianist, who appeared with the DSO last season for Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor. The orchestra and Mr. van Zweden were more than capable, but there seemed to be significant artistic differences between conductor and pianist, and I found the latter much more committed and refined in his approach. The sincerity and understatement needed to get at the heart of a work like this are qualities I sometimes find missing in Mr. van Zweden, whose interpretations tend to be highly detailed, dense, and on the aggressive side. For music that can benefit from such treatment – and I’ve been surprised at times by some composers’ works which do – Mr. van Zweden is a formidable artist, but Mr. Achúcarro’s poetic, subtle playing was a perfect match with Schumann’s score. The gently sloping, long trajectory of Mr. Achúcarro’s phrasing gave suppleness and unity to the cadenza of the first movement, in which too many pianists proceed in fits and starts until pounding away in an infamous succession of jumping chords. As an encore, Mr. Achúcarro suffused Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 no. 2 with the same poise and elegance.

After intermission, Mr. van Zweden led an atmospheric and generally successful account of the Debussy. For me, though, there was a tautness that, while effective in much Debussy and Ravel, was at odds with the sensuous core of this piece. Pines of Rome, however, was breathtaking and surely the highlight of the evening. For a piece that employs so many special effects (the most extreme of which is a recorded nightingale singing), everything sounded fresh, and never came across as a gimmick. After its raucous opening, taken this evening at a few ticks beyond full tilt, the next two movements explore a myriad of softer expressions, truly kaleidoscopic when executed as well as they were in this performance. That the concluding “Pines of the Appian Way” was climactic after the noise and excitement of the initial “Pines of the Villa Borghese” attested to the brilliant control and careful pacing of Mr. van Zweden and his players.

***11