The Dallas Symphony, now in its sixth season under Music Director Jaap van Zweden, welcomed his predecessor Andrew Litton back to conduct a weekend of Stravinsky and Saint-Saëns (music from two ballets and a violin concerto, respectively). While Mr Litton got a decidedly warm reception and was an enthusiastic presence on the podium, careless programming and dreary playing conspired to nearly doom this performance, which was rescued from tedium by a phenomenal guest soloist.

This weekend’s program was one of three the DSO will present this season featuring more than one large-scale work by a single composer, plus a piece by a second composer thrown in seemingly as an afterthought: a Classical Series program in November will showcase the music of Brahms (his Third Symphony and Violin Concerto), with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem hanging around like an uninvited guest. Pairing two Stravinsky ballets on one program isn’t an inherently bad idea, but Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto no. 3 seemed uncomfortably caught in the middle. This evening’s marathon totaled a whopping 95 minutes of music, but even the concert’s extreme length was the lesser of several programming blunders.

Another aspect of this program that could have been quite interesting – the juxtaposition of two of Stravinsky’s ballet scores, one legendary and the other less so – didn’t quite come off either. The notion of presenting ballet music in concert is a tricky one, and it can be argued that many works of music in this genre don’t stand on their own, without dancers. The three great Stravinsky ballets – Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, along with The Firebird – are obvious exceptions, even in their complete forms. A case can be made for the Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss, but it was an odd curtain-raiser. The Divertimento could succeed as the meatier work on a first half along with perhaps a Mozart or Rossini overture, but it was awkward as a prelude to the even longer Saint-Saëns concerto.

Maestro Litton has delved into the music of Stravinsky over the past decade or so, but no matter how ardent a supporter of Stravinsky’s music he may be, his enthusiasm apparently wasn’t contagious. He has worked previously with many of the current DSO members – he led the ensemble from 1994 to 2006 – but the orchestra this evening was either unconvinced, unresponsive, unfocused, or some combination of the three. The DSO, in both of the works by Stravinsky, was caught in the middle, committed to none of the extremes that this music demands. The Fairy’s Kiss was composed in homage to Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky peppers the score with musical quotations from that earlier master, each distorted to a different degree. It’s an odd effect to hear music in such a grand Romantic vein subjected to Stravinsky’s method of intercutting, or switching from one musical section to the next with absolutely no transition. Neither the Romanticism nor the modern aspects of this work were sufficiently played up, adding unhelpful ambiguity to the question of whose perspective – Stravinsky’s or Tchaikovsky’s – is meant to be the dominant one. But for either interpretation to really take hold, stronger characterization of themes was needed.

The Firebird suffered from a similarly lethargic reading. The few moments of genuine excitement were squandered by impatient crescendos resulting in prolonged and undifferentiated loud playing, and between such moments lay vast expanses of musical stasis. Here, as in the music from The Fairy’s Kiss, the emotional gulf between whimsy and brutality, longing and terror, was too narrow to make either extreme seem real.

The lone bright spot in this concert, and a very bright one indeed, was violinist Karen Gomyo. Her passionate and chiseled, yet unsentimental, reading of the Saint-Saëns was riveting from start to finish. Mr Litton deserves no small amount of credit for this, too, his extensive experience in opera serving him well to keep the orchestra hanging on the soloist’s every nuance. Ms Gomyo held the audience captive on several elongated high notes as they floated nearly away, and Mr Litton seemed to be holding his breath along with everyone else, arms suspended and ready to fall back to earth with the orchestra after each of these moments. Even the DSO perked up, offering inspired playing in the second and third movements, and making at least one part of this strange evening memorable.

***11