Dallas — In Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music, he wrote at length about three “hypothetical planes” on which music leaves an impression on a person. With good reason, he admonished the general audience member for focusing on the “sensuous” plane of music (the mere beauty of sound independent of emotional meaning or structure). On the other hand, he outlined the tendency of musicians to focus on the “sheerly musical” notes, dynamics and structure. He describes the third plane as the experience of emotional content and communication. Thursday’s performance of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap Van Zweden demonstrated the power of uniting these planes of listening into a comprehensive whole. Pairing a relatively brief Mozart concerto with the monumental Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 was a welcome alternative to what could have been marathon concert.
One frustratingly difficult thing about Mozart is his refusal to give satisfaction to the musician who spends most of his mental effort plotting the mechanical aspect of notes and articulations. The simplicity of harmonic and melodic movement is a shock to a player accustomed to the extreme acrobatics of what is now the standard concert repertoire. Many times has a professional musician climbed upon a stage revealing in embarrassment his or her inner mechanical workings not clothed by the expressive beauty of Mozart’s candid semantics. And there, naked to the audience, the notes themselves become more difficult than the Khalkotauroi to harness. Yes, there is reason for musicians to fear Mozart. But to the artist whose sole concern is the balance and fusion of Copland’s three planes of music, a transformative experience is the reward for the ready listener.
Pianist Emanuel Ax’s personality on stage in Thursday’s performance of the Mozart Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major was an example of professionalism. His musical demeanor was neither narcissistic nor extravagant: a perfect match for Mozart. This work was constructed using succinct bits of drama placed strategically as to darken the taste but not produce complete homogeneity; rather in a checkered pattern or even flannel did the music unwind. Gesture from one direction acted against another into the fabric of sound. It was inevitable in its direction and flow, but Ax and van Zweden invisibly directed the motion into eddies spun around the work’s classical structure. Watching musicians disappearing in such a way is a rare treat in classical era music.
For the “sensuous” listener, the eighth symphony of Shostakovich is an exhausting experience. It is long and rarely beautiful; the sublime cannot be measured by beauty. Also for the musicians, Shostakovich sees to it that no instrumentalist on stage is without some difficult and extended passage either as a section or as a solo. Especially notable was David Matthews’ extended English horn solo in the first movement which gave a stark yet lyrical contrast to the restlessness of the perfectly balanced strings.
For the work as a whole, there is little satisfaction to be had in following the structure as it slowly leans forward. However, van Zweden never let the music linger without a drive and purpose. This kept the listener pulled to music and accentuated the overwhelming flood of pathos. But this brings us to the only fault with the overall experience.
Copland warned against denying music its right to expressiveness through attempts to nail down a meaning through words. His argument was that concert music should not be diminished in the expressive plane to a concrete definition, as comforting as it may be to the listener. From the DSO’s advertising to the program notes, the emotional content of the work was interpreted as Shostakovich’s literal reenacting the horrors of war. While there is no doubt that the unimaginable terrors witnessed by Shostakovich did lead to a particular creative state, it is severely limiting the enduring renewal of an artistic creation to tie a certain orchestration or texture to the falling of missiles.
What is really touching about this piece is the humanity it expresses; it is a work of positive art rather than negative. It is a testament that atrocities of humanity can never intrude into the sacred space of the human soul, a place that for this composer burned with a great heat and a place from where his art originated. Purely in this regard, the performance was a great success.