The Dallas Symphony Orchestra have had a couple of high-profile guest performers in town for their most recent series of concerts. They presented works by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, a piano concerto and a symphony respectively, in a program that, although disastrously designed, was redeemed by some stellar playing.

The last DSO concert I heard was a strange mixture of works which poorly complemented one another, loosely assembled under the superficial theme of Rome. The structure of this weekend’s program was just as mindless, falling under the tired “Popular Russian Schmaltz” rubric. Even the banality of such programming would be tolerable – it would take more than that to ruin a piece as great as Rach Three – but Tchaikovsky’s “Polish” Symphony is a bit of a dead-end, no matter how it is programmed.

The warhorses of the repertoire aren’t going anywhere, but there has also been an encouraging trend in recent years of programming works by lesser-known composers, or underperformed gems by established masters. This is admirable, as it gives some great works their due as well as adds interest to concertgoing. But there are an overwhelming number of recordings of the great composers’ complete works, so presenting a piece like Tchaikovsky’s Third in concert simply for curiosity’s sake is no longer sufficient. Unless it’s given a truly iconic performance, the only enjoyment in such music comes anachronistically, by hearing occasional moments that foreshadowed his later works. Played on Saturday right after a phenomenal Rachmaninov concerto, this was a long 45 minutes.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson did in fact make a big splash with one such underrepresented work: his 1989 recording of Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C major brought this mammoth, complex piece somewhat into the mainstream. I last heard him playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major in August, and while he had an excellent partner then in conductor Susanna Mälkki, it was a pleasure to hear Mr. Ohlsson with the DSO (a stronger group than the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra), as well as Hans Graf, currently Music Director of the Houston Symphony.

While there were some apparent differences in interpretation – with Mr. Ohlsson more fluid and assertive and Mr. Graf toeing a more conservative line – these were mostly evident in sequential passagework in the first and second movements, and ultimately not of huge significance. Unfussy with phrasing as he was with tempi and temperament, Mr. Graf brought out a straightforward and unpretentious sound from the orchestra that perfectly suited the honest and brooding qualities of the score. The DSO sounded less obsessively detailed than on their 2004 recording with pianist Stephen Hough and conductor Andrew Litton (live recordings of the complete Rachmaninov concerto cycle), and in this case less was more. They provided a good match for Mr. Ohlsson’s understated, aristocratic approach.

I’m not sure I have seen incredulity on the faces of orchestra members such as I did Saturday evening; in each of Mr. Ohlsson’s solos, as well as in his encore (a delicately playful Chopin Waltz in C sharp minor), violinists peered over his shoulder in disbelief, or else others without a view of the keyboard nodded or smiled their semi-conscious “amens”. One major asset of Mr. Ohlsson’s is the power of his technical apparatus and composure at the piano. (I think I saw him get slightly red in the face once in the course of the concert, but I may be mistaken.) Without any obvious strain or virtuoso “display” (read: histrionics), the music came across as it should, but almost never does: as a piece that is deeply serious and symphonic in nature, without the millions of solo piano notes presented as an obstacle or goal unto themselves. Mr. Ohlsson approached the music by way of its darkness and weight; he chose to perform the smaller of the two cadenzas to the first movement (the epithet “smaller” in this case akin to “less caloric” between large and extra-large Big Mac meals), but the way he rendered its opening ascent, with a full tone and generous pedal, I almost thought he had chosen the other, beefier (sorry) cadenza. By the end of the first movement, I had forgotten my slacks were still soaked through up to the knees after a mad dash from my car in the pouring rain.

As well as the orchestra played (principal bassoonist Wilfred Roberts was exceptional in a prominent role), and as capable as Mr. Graf was in leading them, there was simply no way that the Tchaikovsky symphony would make much of an impression, even had it not been charged with following such an achievement as Mr. Ohlsson’s Rachmaninov. Perhaps some works relegated to the dustbin of history, or some other such cliché, would be better off left there.

***11