On the two hundred and fifty-sixth birthday of Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, a voice over the loudspeaker announced the arrival of the more succinctly-named Emmitt Smith to the stage of Dallas’s Meyerson Symphony Center. Mr. Smith, the legendary former Dallas Cowboys running back and Super Bowl MVP, in turn introduced the true man of the evening, Dallas Symphony Orchestra Artistic Director Jaap van Zweden, recently named Musical America’s 2012 Conductor of the Year. Alas, Mr. Smith was not to take the podium – as had the tuxedo-clad basketball great Shaquille O’Neal in 2010 to lead the Boston Pops – but his presence did ignite a festive atmosphere for this significant birthday.

Mozart was represented on the program in his Clarinet Concerto, K622, with the second half devoted to Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C major, D.944. Both works date from the respective twilights of their creators’ tragically short lives, yet both share a positive outlook, to differing degrees. Schubert’s symphony is undoubtedly bright and full of life, while the Mozart concerto is more content and subtly warm. The first movement of this latter work is similar in spirit to the wonderful A major Piano Concerto, K488, and they in fact start with the same interval, a descending third from E to C-sharp. Rather than the bubbly excitement or grandeur often found in fast movements of Mozart concerti, here there is a more introverted, mature, even nostalgic kind of joy. Mr. van Zweden believes this music is “melancholic, sad in a way, despite its A major tonality”, and if you listen closely, the poignancy can be heard.

Even at his cheeriest, Schubert is never without this tinge of melancholy. Listening to Schubert can be a bit like watching a tight-rope walker; his music is every bit as delicate – and at the same time brazen – and his constantly surprising phrase lengths and oscillations between major and minor harmonies give the listener momentary butterflies. Like watching an acrobat balance with one foot on the wire, these effects create a nanosecond of emotional uncertainty, a sense of imbalance, before their beauty can be appreciated, moments later, in retrospect. For most of the present symphony Schubert keeps these moments at a minimum, with the primary exceptions of the work’s very beginning and the magnificent second-movement Andante con moto.

After the initial celebrity fanfare, Maestro van Zweden left the stage, returning with a slightly less physically imposing figure, principal clarinetist Gregory Raden. Mr. Raden gave a reading that reveled in the sumptuous beauty of the clarinet’s sound. It was a fascination late in life with the instrument, and with one soloist in particular, that produced this work and several of Mozart’s chamber pieces that include clarinet. The same thing would happen roughly one hundred years later with Brahms, and in both cases the resulting works glorify above all else the unique timbre of the clarinet. Mr. Raden revealed vast reserves of possibilities in sound, cultivating a new color with every repetition of familiar material, and in every region of the instrument’s range; his playful awareness of the use of lower tones – which had particularly bewitched Mozart – was a treat. Mr. van Zweden led a pared-down orchestra with an acute ear for balance and proportion in sound and phrasing. His interest in historically-informed performance manifested itself in frequently straight-toned string playing and a buoyant, flexible sense of dynamics.

Another historical consideration – the presumed influence of Beethoven – guided Mr. van Zweden’s reading of the Schubert. Unexpected accents, a square solidity to the outer movements, and sustained lines of epic length lent a decidedly Beethovenian cast to this performance. The DSO, now fuller than the chamber orchestra used in the Mozart, was equally synchronized in its approach. The brass were particularly impressive. Schubert scored the work for three trombones, and his valuation of their melodic importance (they are not used for mere bombast) is evident in his incorporation of them into each of the four movements. At a couple of points, namely in the middle of the Andante con moto, a desire to keep the tempo moving and hear long-term arcs and slow-paced changes led to a bit too casual a feel. Most of the time, however, the need for simultaneous fluidity and gravity was met, in an interpretation at once grand and intimate. On a weekend without football, this capacity crowd of North Texans still had much to celebrate.

****1