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One could argue that placing music of Brahms and Dvorak on the same program could bring additional insight into the music of both. In this case, the bald safeness of the choice of the Dvorak seemed more evident than ever.

The Classical Note: When Safe Orchestral Programming Backfires

The concert by the Dallas Symphony Friday night at Meyerson Symphony Center unfortunately demonstrated that a “safe” program can backfire.

The trouble started just a few bars into Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by French pianist Hélène Grimaud, with music director Jaap van Zweden conducting. Grimaud, who owns a worthy reputation for solid musicianship, continually failed to deliver. Tempos waivered from phrase to phrase, and passage-work frequently blurred. Conductor Van Zweden and the orchestra (in generally top form) repeatedly rescued the show and managed to build a reasonable level of momentum. And, as usual, the orchestra’s superb horn section provided several sit-up-and-listen moments, with beautifully assertive and technically flawless playing. Principal cellist Christopher Adkins, as expected, delivered the cello obbligato in the slow movement handsomely.

The real problem with the sort of risk-free programming that this concert represented emerged after intermission. Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony—yes, the “New World”—certainly deserves its immense popularity. But it doesn’t deserve the aura of tired repetition it has also gained through the years.

One could argue that placing music of Brahms and Dvorak—who knew, loved, and influenced each other—on the same program could bring additional insight into the music of both. In this case, however, even though well performed, the bald safeness of the choice of the Dvorak seemed more evident than ever. A solid performance by Van Zweden and the orchestra (with the famous English horn solo in the Largo, presented beautifully and flawlessly by David Matthews) showed the work for exactly what it is: a superbly crafted collection of great melodies and ideas. No new ground was broken, but there’s not much new ground to be broken in this overworked field.

With concerts of this sort, the Dallas Symphony and Van Zweden continue to train an audience in the belief that the role of an orchestra is merely to reiterate a set of familiar masterpieces. This amounts, intellectually and artistically, to little more than a high-falutin’ music appreciation class with live orchestra.

Image Hélène Grimaud (Photo by Mat Hennek /DG for Deutsche Grammophon)