Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert on Thursday evening was a roller-coaster ride of expectation and exasperation. One of those expectations was hearing an unfamiliar work by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Another was the opportunity to hear Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra in all its glory. Britten’s violin concerto, while not quite as spectacular, offered the opportunity to experience the sensational Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. Lastly, there was some expectation built around conductor Jakub Hrůša, who has impressed in the past, and might be a candidate for the DSO podium when Music Director Jaap van Zweden leaves at the end of the 2017-18 season, headed for the New York Philharmonic.
Martinů was up first.
He left what was then Czechoslovakia for Paris when he was 32, but eventually immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi occupation. His cobbled his musical voice together out of influences he picked up along the way. He combined Czech folk music with his training in the late romantic style. He spiced that up with elements of the jazz he discovered in Paris and America. He cooked up this musical stew in Stravinsky’s neo-classical pot and created a sound that is distinctively his.
The piece on the program, Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, was inspired by, as the title says, a cycle of 1466 frescoes called The History of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo (Tuscany). Martinů saw it in 1954 and he found it so inspiring he wrote this symphonic cycle in 1955, near the end of his life, while living in Nice.
Hopes ran high that Hrůša would bring some insight to the music of his fellow countryman. This he tried to accomplish, but his sodden performance added too much weight to the music for it to take off. However, the overwhelming beauty of Martinů’s music overcame Hrůša’s vague conducting, and the audience loved it. (Let’s have some more Martinů.)
What didn’t disappoint was Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang’s astounding performance of Benjamin Britten’s brilliant, but rarely performed, Violin Concerto. This is a work of transcendental difficulties, with virtuosic mastery required to meet the composer’s demands. Frang had everything she needed to make the concerto work, and that she did. She has the musicality needed to make music and the ultimate control over both the bow and instrument to pull off the long passages of harmonics, natural and artificial.
Frang, who is a protégé of Anne-Sophie Mutter, was born in Oslo in 1986. With her demure deportment, some in the audience might have wondered if she had the steely strength that Britten’s concerto requires. But, we needn’t have worried. As soon as she delivered a heart-rending reading of Britten’s theme, she attacked the concerto with all the strength required.
Her technical mastery made short work of Britten’s notorious challenges with magnificent intonation and expressive phrasing. Her dynamic range went from very loud to almost inaudible and she adapted her memorable sound to each musical occasion. The famous articulated slide of octaves, from the top of the instrument to the bottom, was so perfectly executed and some in the audience (who were not familiar with the concerto) could have easily missed this musical piece of legerdemain.
She took the scherzo at a lightning pace and a remarkably played cadenza took us to the passacaglia and its highly colored variations that brings the concerto to an unsettled end.
Her control of the bow allowed her to hold the last note, right down to silence, and then she froze in place for what felt like a very long time. A single impatient handclap broke the mood and she received a deservedly rapturous ovation. (You can’t help but wonder how much longer she would have held her tableau if that eager fan had less excitement and a little more self control. Maybe we would still be there.)
After intermission, we eagerly awaited the piece that probably brought in much of the audience, Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra.
The glorious opening, which Stanley Kubrick used with such success in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, has taken on a life of its own and frequently appears in all sorts of arrangements and situations, from disco hits and jazz arrangements to adding grandeur to the entrance of professional wrestlers.
An aside: YouTube is a treasure trove of arrangements of this über famous few minutes of music and worth a gander. One of the, er, most unusual is 2001: Sprach Kazoostra. This creative take is given a remarkably energetic and performance by The Temple City Kazoo Orchestra.
Hrůša certainly made the most of the famous opening with a greatly expanded Dallas Symphony, complete with the thundering Lay Family Organ. The hall still rang with the echo long after the actual sound stopped and the audience was dazzled.
However, this is a sunrise and not the Big Bang. Overplaying this opening, as happened on Thursday evening, doesn’t do any favors for the remainder of the piece. After all, it is only marked fortissimo, (admitted with a crescendo on the last note). Such a blast gives the impression that the piece is over because nothing can follow such brilliance. It makes it difficult for the conductor to re-engage the audience and guide them through the remainder of the piece.
Hrůša gave it a huge arm waving effort, and the DSO worked very hard to project the music, but his reading was not involving and he was unable to regain the entirety of audience. Strauss, a conductor himself, realized the problem and furnished one of his most beautiful and darkly impassioned passages featuring divided violas and celli. But it didn’t work on Thursday because Hrůša did not take advantage of it. It was all very nice, and still beautiful, but became more bland as it continued.
And so it went.
Hrůša was always in the moment. But those well-played moments were not part of the whole—a pile of beautiful bricks instead of a brick wall.
As such, this performance sounded more like a suite of Straussian hits than what it is a tightly constructed musical expression of Friedrich Nietzsche’s bizarre and rambling 1885 literary masterpiece. Further, there were some “hold your breath” moments when Hrůša’s sweeping motions lacked the clarity to allow the orchestra to know exactly where and when the downbeat would occur. They did the best they could under the circumstances, but concertmaster Alex Kerr saved the day on many occasions.
However, all the questionable details mentioned above didn’t prevent this magnificent piece from breaking through and reaching out to the audience.
What it can be didn’t detract all that much from what it was.