Music review: Jaap van Zweden conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall
More and more these days, we hear stories about orchestras who seem to be hiring their music directors on the basis of “love at first sight.” Of course, it happened here -- Gustavo Dudamel getting the job after only two engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
But at least Dudamel had two. Jaap van Zweden, the former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who took to the baton full time in the 1990s, needed only one concert to enrapture the Dallas Symphony, which promptly signed him to succeed Andrew Litton in 2008-09. Last October, Dallas extended Van Zweden’s contract through 2015-16, so there are no regrets in the Big D.
The Philharmonic got its first look at the 49-year-old Dutchman over the past weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He is hardly a glamorous-looking figure; in several photos, he comes off as menacing. He had a front-row seat in Amsterdam to observe all of the leading conductors who came through town -- and judging from Van Zweden’s muscular, jerking, kinetic gestures, the maestro who made the biggest physical impression may have been Sir Georg Solti.
Van Zweden’s programming stuck to the usual overture-concerto-symphony pattern Saturday night, yet there were enough quirks to take it a bit off the beaten path.
First was a dashing “Cyrano de Bergerac” overture by one of Van Zweden’s countrymen, Johan Wagenaar (1862-1941), whose music, like that of most Dutch composers before Louis Andriessen, hasn’t traveled much beyond the borders of the Netherlands. Wagenaar’s vocabulary apparently stopped roughly around the year 1890; this overture brazenly paraphrases the flourishes of Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” -- as do several of his other overtures and tone poems -- with more than a little Berlioz thrown in. The Philharmonic had never played it before (no surprise there), and the musicians seemed to enjoy its vigor and rocket-like themes, especially the whomping brasses.
But while Van Zweden was getting an energetic response from the Philharmonic all night, that didn’t translate into a memorable Brahms Fourth Symphony, which was mostly loud and unwavering in dynamics. There was a sense of pressing too relentlessly ahead, even though the tempos weren’t all that fast; it needed more tension and release, and a stronger rhythmic base.
Rather than go with Rachmaninoff’s often-played Second or Third Piano Concertos, pianist Simon Trpceski headed for the First Concerto, the composer’s Op. 1 -- which isn’t heard nearly as often (probably because it lacks a big knockout tune), but speaks the same language. There were plenty of massive octaves and supersonic runs to razzle-dazzle the galleries with -- which Trpceski did, but not always, choosing to understate some of the barnstorming in the finale. Trpceski took a rather slow tempo in the second movement, trying to extract as much profundity as he could, and Van Zweden turned up the rubato knob on the first movement’s rhapsodic orchestral passages.
Trpceski also played up his heritage with Panoe Sahov’s “In Struga,” based on the odd meters and gait of Macedonian folk music -- and added a mournful Chopin Waltz in A minor as a second encore.
-- Richard S. Ginell
Photo: Jaap van Zweden. Credit: Marco Borggreve