In a concert featuring two works of Richard Wagner (one a concert piece, the other an adaptation from an opera score), the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jaap van Zweden made their biggest statements in works by Mozart and Debussy. The fascinating program paired the Wagner works, one in each half, with those of the supposedly more “demure” high-classicist and arch-Impressionist. After Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, guest soloist David Fray joined the DSO for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, K466. The “Good Friday Spell” from Wagner’s Parsifal and La mer by Debussy followed intermission.

Siegfried Idyll, while far in spirit from the Wagner of the dramatic opera overtures more frequently heard, was a lovely selection to open with. The work was first scored for thirteen musicians, a number that could feasibly fit into the home of Wagner and his wife Cosima (Liszt’s daughter) to play it as a surprise on her birthday. Unlike the “Good Friday Spell,” which was arranged by Dutch conductor and scholar Wouter Hutschenruyter, Siegfried Idyll was scored in its present orchestral version and conducted as such by Wagner himself.

Both of these works are serene – Siegfried Idyll feels like the expectant sunrise to the contented dusk of the “Good Friday Spell” – and served as foils to the stormy Mozart concerto and colorful La mer. The D minor concerto is one of Mozart’s most songful, and one of those (along with the C major, K467) in which he seems farthest beyond his era in presaging the personal emotional investment of Romantic style. Arguably Debussy’s most popular piece for orchestra, La mer closed the program with a flourish. Debussy often gave evocative titles to his works, as much as he disliked being labeled as an “Impressionist”. La mer is not programmatic (it has no prose narrative to guide it), but the movements are titled as follows: I. From Dawn ‘til Noon on the Sea; II. Play of the Waves; and III. Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.

What came across strongly over the course of hearing these varied works was, in addition to their individual characters, one unifying element: the strong artistic personality of Maestro van Zweden and indeed of the DSO themselves. From the very opening of Siegfried Idyll, the evening was dominated by clearly defined and meticulously sculpted playing, with astounding ensemble unity. Theirs was an unorthodox take on Wagner, allowing more air into the phrases and sound of the orchestra than is usually heard, a highly Teutonic interpretation in its prioritizing of formal organization.

Perhaps this was wise, in that it did not detract from the driving pathos at the outset of the Mozart concerto. Mr. Fray, a young French pianist (he will turn 31 this year), seems to consider himself something of an enfant terrible. He chooses a chair over a standard piano bench, and leans his entire upper body over the keyboard and grunts a good deal while he plays – to admirers of Glenn Gould, this should all sound very familiar. The opening orchestral tutti began with Mr. Fray leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, occasionally lifting a hand to push his hair back behind an ear. When playing music that has been so familiar to audiences for so long, there is a great burden on performers to keep it sounding fresh and revelatory, as if it had been written yesterday. Whatever the superficial manifestations of this (soloists in eccentric outfits, unusual stage deportment), there are few who achieve such freshness in their playing, and Mr. Fray is one of them. He seemed a good match temperamentally to Mr. van Zweden, favoring highly detailed micro-phrases over broader musical brushstrokes.

This style pervaded the second half as well. In both works, the brass assumed a greater role, and turned in performances as nuanced as they were brilliant. Pomposity at the beginning of the “Good Friday Spell” was reined in so as to avoid exaggeration, with Maestro van Zweden’s direction here a little more fluid and poised than in the Siegfried Idyll. The very first measures of La mer brought forth sounds not yet produced by the orchestra this evening. Mr. van Zweden’s reading of this work was permeated with tension throughout, delicately adjusting balance and voicing –particularly among the woodwinds and brass – to achieve a fantastic array of colors, while never allowing the performance to become indulgent or self-satisfied; the bigger musical statement was most important. The DSO’s distinctive characterizations of these three composers proved that in art, individuality and conviction are everything.

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