Can Van Zweden Keep Beethoven’s Ninth Sounding Fresh?

Good ol’ Number Nine rolled down the line again Thursday night—which is to say, the Dallas Symphony began its final weekend of classical concerts with the first of four performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.

Music director Jaap van Zweden brought his usual intense, highly episodic approach to Beethoven. In this case, the result was a wondrous and powerful unity of effect in the final movement. Along the way, he produced a sense of pushing beyond the expected: the first movement was a little darker than usual, the second a little more urgent. By the arrival of the grand choral finale, every detail came across with hard-hitting muscularity.

The orchestra and chorus, fresh from a well received Carnegie Hall performance with Zan Zweden on May 11, performed at their best in this icon of human culture. That the quiet, subtle moments were as impressive and chilling as the gigantic blasts of sound speaks well of the extraordinary level of quality these two ensembles achieved. Among the soloists, bass Luca Pisaroni and tenor Russell Thomas, both of whom own the spotlight at key moments, chose a dramatic, operatic approach that raised the intensity to an even greater level. Mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco and soprano Jeanine Thames, the latter a last-minute substitute for the ailing Sabina Cvilak, got the job done in their brief but notoriously difficult roles.

Although Beethoven’s Ninth was obviously the main event of the evening, the opening item on the agenda was, in its way, equally intriguing. The choice of what to put on a program with this symphonic landmark is always a challenge, sort of like deciding on what to hang on the wall next to the Mona Lisa. Beethoven’s Ninth is not quite long enough for a full evening, but it’s too long to share a concert program with any other work of substantial length. At the same time, it demands a companion of sufficiently serious and profound content.

Shostakovich’s pungent, angular Piano Concerto No. 1 for Piano at first glance seems an odd choice to fill that slot. It’s sometimes presented as almost a throwaway, full of sass and parody and even bitterness.

But in Thursday night’s performance, it held its own and served as a worthy prelude to the massive utterance to follow. Conductor Van Zweden brought a serious, emotionally charged approach, matched by DSO principal trumpet Ryan Anthony in the nearly solo-level obbligato. Most important of all, Illinois-born teenage prodigy Conrad Tao, supplied a brilliant and thunderous technique along with a finely honed, old-school virtuosity to the performance.