For the first time in recent memory, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra presented a program this weekend without any blockbuster audience-favorite to be found on it. Music by Barber and Mahler hardly constitutes an avant-garde presentation, but the prospect of hearing a pair of underplayed masterpieces was exciting, especially considering the orchestra is performing several works this year (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example) that have appeared on their programs as recently as the 2012/13 season.

Instead of familiar fare in repertoire, the concert saw appearances by two excellent soloists: pianist Alessio Bax performed Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto Op. 38, and soprano Chen Reiss joined the DSO for the final movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. These virtuosi were technically unimpeachable, as was the concert as a whole, but the whole experience came up a bit short of truly moving.

Listeners expecting the lush hyper-Romanticism of Barber’s Violin Concerto, or the complex soul of Mahler’s Second or Fifth Symphonies, might be surprised to stumble upon a program like this one. Maestro Jaap van Zweden said (in the printed program notes) that he finds more “bones and sinew” in the Barber Piano Concerto than in many of that composer’s more popular works; indeed, its harsh chromaticism and impetuous rhythm lend this piece a confrontational swagger – Barber marks certain themes in the first movement with the performance direction “arrogant” – not found in, say, the Adagio for Strings. By the same token, the struggle and subsequent triumph that sustains Mahler’s epic symphonies is largely absent in the Fourth. Tellingly, Mahler found this to be quite a challenge, “the uniform blue of the sky being much more difficult to render,” he said, “than all its changing and contrasting hues”.

As I’ve often found to be the case with the DSO under Mr van Zweden, the most convincing musicianship came at moments of fraught, edgy intensity. From the start of the Barber concerto, Mr Bax embraced the brutal, unapologetic side of this work, as he lunged up off of the piano bench and into every big point of arrival in the first movement. Mr van Zweden drove the orchestra with equal vigor, although a bit more contrast would have been welcome. The transitional material before the second theme sounded too matter-of-fact as it bounced around the ensemble; these bars need a touch more mystery in order for the upcoming oboe melody to be really goosebump-inducing. The second-movement Canzone, although beautifully done, seemed more a pleasant lull than a beating heart at the core of this work, but the finale was a thrill ride at the outer limit of control.

Similarly, the most effective parts in the Mahler symphony came not at moments of blissful communion with the universe, but rather when passing clouds threatened the otherwise serene tableau. (Maintaining listener interest throughout an hour-long “uniform blue sky” provides its own challenges.) Mr van Zweden’s penchant for forward thrust tied together brilliantly the development of the first movement. Here, the rhythmic ostinato with which the sleighbells opened the symphony was transformed by several other instruments, turning a harbinger of joy into an object of disturbing compulsion. In the Fourth Symphony, however, such moments are few and far between, as it mostly shows off an untroubled sunny disposition. Intense joy, unlike intense anxiety, did not come off as effectively; the third movement sounded fluid and improvisatory, but the big climaxes never transcended the sum of their parts. Ms Reiss’ command and diction in the fourth movement were spotless, and while she seemed to err on the side of caution, her performance was convincing and a good fit with Mr van Zweden’s sober take on this piece.

Mr van Zweden clearly knows his orchestra, and they respond with gusto to the stronger aspects of their conductor’s personality. With two serious-minded soloists in tow, moments of unbridled joy were hard to come by, but the fireworks were certainly impressive.

***11