Dallas — Artistic Director Maria Schleuning’s efforts to represent the entirety of music from 1900 to the present, and a dedication to new works, makes Voices of Change one of the most valuable performing organizations in the country.
On Oct. 19 in Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Sothern Methodist University, VOC held true to this mission. They presented a program that was the music of our time, but spread over four decades, from 1971 to 2014. It also covered a wide range of musical styles, from traditional harmony to modernism, and size of ensemble from one player to a world premiere requiring more than a dozen.
Let’s start with how the program ended: the world premiere of Dreaming at the Wheel by Andrew Rudin, based on four Texas-related poems by Charles Behlen. It is written for baritone and a large ensemble: two flutes, two clarinets, string quartet, double bass, piano, percussion and conductor. Both the composer and poet attended and spoke about their work beforehand in Laurie Shulman’s always-fascinating pre-concert seminar.
Of interest to this reviewer was the poet’s statement that he purposely didn’t listen to the rehearsals because he wanted to experience the piece the same way the audience would at the first hearing. His response just arrived (I asked for it by email), and was worth the wait. You can read his comments at the end of this review.
Baritone David Grogan was amazing. His diction allowed us to hear every word of the poems, which ranged from clever and bittersweet to the description of a tornado. He also captured the Texas accent, without exaggeration, and the folk quality to the poems, which would have suffered with an art song approach. Conductor Richard Giangiulio did a fine job of bringing it all together. He set good tempi, kept the ensemble precisely aligned and balanced—no easy task with a one-on-a-part mini-orchestra. Of course, his job was made easier with such a distinguished a group of instrumentalists: players from various orchestras and universities around town.
Rudin’s score goes right past tone painting to illustrative. In some ways, it was like a score to a described film. His use of extended techniques served the poems well. Strumming inside the piano and stopping the notes with his hand created excellent effects. Harmonic glissandi in the violins created the sound of a ghostly wind. His musical depiction of the tornado was vivid.
Regular musical effects also abounded. Open intervals in the first poem, about a graveyard, gave a haunted and lonely sound. One of the most striking effects was a unison that ripped across the orchestra from left to right. A recording would never be able to duplicate this but, in the hall, it was remarkable.
Paired with the Rudin premiere on the second half of the program was another work that used extended playing techniques: a piece for solo horn by Olivier Messiaen, Appel Interstellaire, dating from 1974. Dallas Symphony horn player Haley Hoops has impressed before, but this performance was extraordinary.
The title means “interstellar call,” which the mystical and devout Catholic composer probably meant was a call or message from the heavens. Hoops brought out a friend who held down the sustaining pedal on the grand piano while she played the piece, directing her bell into the instrument. The echo caused by the sympathetic vibration of the piano’s harp brought an eerie interstellaire quality. It changed everything about how the performance sounded.
The program opened with the Duo for Flute and Piano by Aaron Copland ( 1971). There are hints of Appalachian Spring as well as some more harmonically adventurous moments in the score.
Flutist Helen Blackburn produced an exquisite sound: full and rich through all of the registers. Some of the first movement was for flute alone and we luxuriated in her sound. She was joined by collaborative pianist Gabriel Sanchez, who did the honors for the entire concert. He is a pianist with the DSO. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize what a fine musician he is and admire his clear technique. The pair delivered a near perfect reading of the three movements.
Bright White Smooth followed. It is a piece from 2009 by Geoffrey Gordon for flute, viola and harp. Violist Barbara Sudsweeks and harpist Yumiko Endo Schlaffer joined Backburn. Gordon writes, at least in this piece, in a modernist dissonant style. The three voices are independent to the point of sounding unrelated. He also splinters the music into discrete notes or groups of notes, much like the klangfarbenmelodie “scatter” technique of the serialists in the Second Viennese School (most notably Schoenberg and Webern). The three musicians met the significant challenges of the piece, making as good a case for it as possible. However, the language sounded a little dated.
The other work on the program was a spectacular performance of Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagñole for violin and piano. Violinist (and also VOC artistic director) Maria Schleuning gave the piece a dynamic performance, full of Spanish flavor. She favored the lowest string possible throughout which added a deep resonance, reminiscent of the style of Flamenco. Once again, it was impossible not to notice the excellent playing of Sanchez, although he did nothing to call attention to himself—except brilliant playing and a perfect sense of supportive dynamics.
Now, here are the comments of poet Charles Behlen about hearing, for the first time, his poems set to music by Andrew Rudin at the premiere performance (rather than at the rehearsals):
I knew that Rudin's music was often an interesting meld of modernist and traditional influences when I heard his "Memories of Texas Towns and Cities," which was performed by the New Music Ensemble at UT-Texas in 1988. In that work, which was based on the poems of Dave Oliphant, the performance alternated between the poet's recitation of his own work and Rudin's music and there was no overlap. In Dreaming at the Wheel a baritone sang the lines. I compared the experience to listening to opera where, unlike in American musicals, even the conversation is sung. In this case, the words were poetry, which kept the work from assuming an unintentionally comical aspect.
For instance, you don't get somebody full-throatedly singing "Thank you for the ceramic elephant," which you do in Nixon in China. Of course there are many instances of this in modern and traditional opera and, to me, it's a real stumbling block to a wider appreciation of the genre. That said, there were many intentionally funny moments in Rudin's Dreaming at the Wheel, especially when, in "Tornado," he stirs up an Ives-inspired Texas storm of musical "debris" comprised of scraps of traditional Texas songs. At the conclusion of "Tornado," where the bald transvestite Al ascends bodily into heaven, the musicians produced pairs of pantyhose and waved them above their heads. I couldn't have been happier.