Van Zweden makes riveting Ravinia debut in Mahler 6 with CSO

Sun Jul 08, 2012 at 1:47 pm

By Kyle MacMillan

Jaap van Zweden led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 6 Saturday night at Ravinia.

Named Musical America’s 2012 Conductor of the Year, Jaap van Zweden has re-energized the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in his first four seasons as its music director and pushed its international profile to new heights.

The rising Dutch maestro is also an active guest conductor and has built a strong relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, having had seven engagements with the CSO since filling in for Riccardo Chailly in October 2008.

It was not hard to understand why he keeps getting asked back after watching him lead the orchestra in an intense, riveting account of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in van Zweden’s Ravinia Festival debut Saturday evening.

Though largely ignored by the classical world during a significant chunk of the 20th century, Mahler’s nine symphonies are now justly revered for their unsurpassed depth, passion, mystery, and originality. Not as popular or as frequently performed as some of the composer’s other works in the form, the Sixth Symphony ranks – as this performance made abundantly clear—among his most memorable achievements.

Mahler’s use of the sobriquet is disputed by scholars, but he is said to have originally given the symphony the apt subtitle, “Tragic.” Though there are lighter moments, turmoil dominates this nearly 90-minute work, which has long been associated with the inevitability of an unkind fate.

Van Zweden and the orchestra offered a vigorous, propulsive take – a tightly conceived, overarching interpretation that only gained in power as the symphony churned forward. He captured the insistent rhythmic drive of the opening movement and boldly articulated its sudden thematic shifts, though concentration drifted at times in the early going Saturday night.

Like most conductors these days, van Zweden opted for making the Scherzo the second movement, and here hit his stride with a muscular, buoyant take, pulsing with the restless kinetic quality that defines this section. In a fluid, deftly shaped Andante, the conductor drew rich sound from the orchestra’s strings.

The symphony culminated powerfully with the longest and most complex of its four movements – one that could have almost have been a fully formed work in itself. Conductor and orchestra were at their best here, vividly conveying the movement’s strident climaxes and colliding passages. The section’s raw emotional instability was palpable, only reaching resolution with the blast of the final A minor chord – a bleak capitulation to hopelessness.

The only strike against this performance was the often unbalanced sound, which seemed to have more to do with the amplification than the music being produced onstage. To these ears, the brass was overpowering at certain moments and the percussion, especially the snare drum and celesta, were sometimes too loud. Otherwise, this was a strong outing for both van Zweden and the orchestra.

Posted in Performances


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