Jaap van Zweden’s reputation preceded him to Atlanta. A violinist of poetic sensibility and ferocious discipline, he has been concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the world’s two or three best. (His CD of Leonard Bernstein’s violin concerto “Serenade,” from a 1988 performance with the Concertgebouw, is a go-to favorite.) Bernstein himself encouraged van Zweden’s ambition to become a conductor, and since the late 1990s he’s been on the fast-rising maestro circuit.
Now music director of the Dallas Symphony, he is credited with tightening up what had been a good but soggy orchestra. This season, van Zweden — everyone in Texas calls him Jaap — is making career-enhancing debuts across the country, including with orchestras in New York, Boston and, Thursday night in Symphony Hall, Atlanta. The program repeats Friday and Saturday and is worth the ticket.
His program was conventional, although it opened with a Dutch composer new to the ASO. Johan Wagenaar’s 1905 “Cyrano de Bergerac” Overture echoes a Strauss tone poem in its muscular heroics. Punching the air with his baton, van Zweden had the ASO strings playing beyond their best: taut and lush and bristling with concentrated sound. For once, the strings held their own with the ASO woodwinds, and the orchestra was better aligned than we often hear it. (Cyrano was the storyline, but I kept getting the visual image of the stocky Jaap, jabbing the air, as a surrogate for Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.”)
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, an imaginative, colorful and thin work with a blazing finish that usually satisfies. Thibaudet’s crystalline clarity, bright tone and machine-tooled virtuosity are part of what make him a compelling Liszt interpreter. He also brings the cosmopolitan elegance of high fashion to the concert hall, itself a Lisztian attitude. It combines to make Thibaudet showy in all the best ways. Van Zweden’s accompaniment wasn’t lyrical enough to match the soloist’s, although the collaboration might deepen with subsequent performances.
Word had circulated this week that the guest conductor was giving the ASO a no-holds-barred workout. He took everything apart and pointedly told an oboist that her playing was like a salami: too cut and dry. He was anything but bland on the podium, and in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 he sculpted phrases and offered an uncommonly fast and lucid reading of the score. It was at times fierce, maybe a little brutal. The outer movements were detailed but lacked nuance.
Clearly, he’s an orchestra builder. But then, so too was Yoel Levi, the former ASO music director who polished the orchestra to a high gloss yet whose interpretations were ultimately less meaningful than the strict regimen he imposed.
But the impression that van Zweden delivers at just one level of intensity — high-strung — was dispelled in the Allegretto second movement. Here the orchestra played much more softly than I’ve ever before heard it play. It was a startling reminder that the ASO has become an orchestra accustomed to shouting. By speaking in hushed tones, it was as if the players had rediscovered a part of their voice that they had forgotten. This Allegretto was a small miracle of disciplined eloquence.
The grip of tension returned for the final two movements, with a mighty payoff: van Zweden built it up block by block from the basses and cellos and whipped up the finale to a lucid frenzy.