Jaap van Zweden returns to the Dallas Symphony for a triumphant Bruckner 7th Symphony

The vast, sprawling symphonies of Anton Bruckner don't give up their secrets easily. Amid quivering string tremolos, thematic fragments rise and fall in sequences. Sometimes they coalesce into genuine themes. Elsewhere heartfelt melodies seem to come out of nowhere.

Masses of brasses trumpet dotted-rhythm fanfare-like ideas. Tempos shift abruptly, sometimes with surprising rests between sections.

Tying all this into a coherent narrative requires a conductor--and, indeed, orchestra--of rather special sophistication. And this music composed by an organist accustomed to big-church reverberation needs a pretty "live" concert hall for best effect.

One thinks of the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics, Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw and (minus the reverberation) the Chicago Symphony as quintessential Bruckner orchestras. The Dallas Symphony wouldn't immediately come to mind. 

Between former principal guest conductor Claus Peter Flor and current music director Jaap van Zweden, both steeped in Brucknerian experience, our orchestra  actually has had a good deal of practice with the 19th-century Austrian composer--and produced some memorable performances. The spacious acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center make it one of the best places anywhere to hear the composer's symphonies.

After three and a half months away, van Zweden was back with the DSO Thursday night to conduct a powerful but lovingly detailed Bruckner Seventh Symphony. A certain lack of usual finesse, and the occasional fuzzed brass entrance, betrayed an orchestra that had coasted a bit during the maestro's absence.  But one could only marvel at van Zweden's grasp of structure and musical trajectory over  vast spans--and at the intensity of the drama.

With tone as intensely focused at pianissimo as at fortissimo, violas and cellos set their opening melody surging and sighing to dramatic effect. The first-movement coda rose from a hushed episode of Wagnerian magic, through crescendo after crescendo, to a climax of telling splendor. (Bruckner adapted Wagnerian sonorities and harmonies to symphonic ends.)

The slow movement's most romantic of melodies was beautifully spun out, the coda recalling the hypnotic opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold. Van Zweden and company made the finale's shifts of surprising jauntiness, rugged development and triumphant grandeur seem almost inevitable, no small accomplishment. Special praise goes to the massed choir of horns and their lower-pitched relatives, Wagner tubas, and to guest flutist Thomas Robertello.

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