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Dallas Symphony, Fabio Luisi weren’t at their best in Brahms and Mahler

A week before Northeast concerts, they didn’t try out the same music.

Thursday night’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert prompted some head-scratching.

Why, a week before the orchestra’s first Northeast concerts with music director Fabio Luisi, was the orchestra not trying out the program to be played in Boston, then in Carnegie Hall and New Haven? (This program was completely different.)

Why, in Luisi’s first week with the orchestra in four months, were they performing and recording the Brahms Third Symphony, as part of a complete cycle? And why, under the circumstances, had they programmed eight songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, music requiring exquisite attention to fine details?

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There was a standing ovation, even applause from the orchestra musicians, after baritone Matthias Goerne’s performance of the Mahler. I wish I could have shared the enthusiasm.

Although I love Mahler’s symphonies, his orchestral songs, apart from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), often elude me. Orchestral writing in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) is a marvel of textural and coloristic effects, and two of the songs were repurposed in Mahler’s Second Symphony. But for me too many of the poems are either trivial or sardonic. (Translations were projected on a screen over the stage.)

Goerne certainly dramatized the words, but I’ve never been a fan of his dense, dark tone, and all his lurching around was distracting. Nor was the orchestra playing at its most precise.

If there’s a defining character to Brahms’ music, it’s deeply felt emotion controlled within sophisticated and often complex textures. Luisi gave us intense — indeed, operatic — emotion in the Third Symphony; if there had been scenery, it would have been chewed. The effect to these ears was sometimes more Verdian than Brahmsian.

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Well after other composers were writing quadruple fortes (ffff), the biggest moments in Brahms’ Third Symphony are marked no louder than fortissimo (ff) — and even that is rare. Stringed instruments in his day were played with far less tension than today, with sparing vibrato. Winds and brasses were softer than ours. This would have yielded a clarity and a certain reserve that modern performances do well to cultivate.

But Thursday’s performance opened with scorching brasses and searing violins — it’s marked only forte — and more dynamics were turbo charged in the finale. Impassioned music this surely is, but here it sounded desperate, hardly a Brahmsian effect.

On a positive note, tempos throughout the symphony were quite mobile. It was nice to hear the middle movements move right along, with lovely horn solos from Andrew Bain, subbing from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in the third.

In between extreme dynamics, Luisi boldly sculpted phrases, crescendos and decrescendos. With second violins sitting opposite the firsts we heard stereophonic effects Brahms would have expected.

As in the Mahler, though, the performance overall didn’t capture the orchestra at its best. Repeats will probably improve.

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Repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. $21 to $142. 214-849-4376,

CORRECTION, 2:21 p.m., March 17: An earlier version of this story misstated the order of the Dallas Symphony’s upcoming tour appearances. The orchestra will go to Boston, then New York and New Haven.