Dallas — The Tuesday installment in this year’s SOLUNA Festival, a chamber music concert at the Dallas City Performance Hall by members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, posed two challenges: first, it offered a performance of an unfamiliar work, and second, it offered a performance of a work that might seem a little too familiar.
The unfamiliar work, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind comes to us from Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, who has the reputation of being like the little girl in Longfellow’s poem: when he is good, he is very good indeed, but when he is bad, he either doesn’t deliver his commissions on time or he’s accused of plagiarism. The good part of his reputation is based partly on the work we heard on Tuesday and partly on his La Pasión según San Marcos, both composed around 20 years ago, and recent work from him has met with disappointment coupled with the hope that he’ll recapture the musical urgency and spirit those two works exhibit.
Tuesday’s audience got that urgency and spirit in a big way, thanks to DSO clarinetist Gregory Raden, co-concertmasters Alexander Kerr and Nathan Olsen, violist Anne Marie Brink (whose fluorescent pink shoes provided the one splash of color on a stage otherwise devoted to browns, blacks and whites), and cellist Abraham Feder. But don’t let the five names fool you. Five people onstage, yes, but two instruments: string quartet and clarinet. And I’m not just being cute with that observation, although the strings certainly exhibited the cooperation and unity of purpose that the designation “quartet” implies. The composer himself talks about the quartet like it’s one thing: it’s “an accordion in the prelude, a klezmer band in the second movement…[and] in the third movement, it's a shepherd's magic flute.”
One thing absent from this work, though, is regulation, NCAA-sanctioned clarinet technique. Written for “Klezmer Clarinet and String Quartet,” there’s very little in the score that calls for the usual clarinet runs and arpeggios, although Golijov certainly takes advantage of the instrument’s smooth agility, which should be the envy of any pianist.
Furthermore, the score calls for the clarinetist to switch between a clarinet in A and bass clarinet, and it’s not often that we get to hear the bass clarinet in an intimate setting like this, by which I mean not surrounded by a hundred other performers. “Intimate setting” in no way applies to the hall, though, which positively dwarfed the five musicians. Something more on the scale of Caruth Auditorium might have better served the first half of the program.
Nevertheless, Raden’s clarinet wailed, sang, whispered; his bass clarinet bellowed, groaned, and in every way produced the compelling, ecstatic utterances that Golijov’s score calls for. And the quartet, relegated to an accompanimental role for much of the work (“like a dead accordion playing by itself,” the score says at the beginning of the second movement), did not allow that cavernous hall to swallow one note. The audience didn’t miss even the most delicately brushed little harmonic (“only resonance, ‘halo,’” it says), thanks, on the one hand, to the masterful playing, and on the other, to the attention the work commands—an attention, I thought, not necessarily commanded by the second work on the program.
A superficial dismissal if ever there was one. I must confess that, when I heard that the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat for Strings, Op. 20, was to share the program with the Golijov, I thought “Oh. Great. That, again.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m a jerk. This work is an absolute delight and is likely to remain so for as long as any of us are around, although we might say the same for anything Mendelssohn ever wrote.
The DSO musicians—Kerr, Olson and Feder again, the last named sitting in for Christopher Adkins, as well as violinists Eunice Keem and Nora Scheller, violists Barbara Sudweeks and Christine Hwang, and cellist Theodore Harvey—performed the work standing up (except for the cellists, and after seeing Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, I can forgive them). Was it my imagination, or did their standing give the performance more energy than it would have had, had they been seated? That’s not something you can measure, true, but it sure seemed like an especially vigorous performance, and on a stage that seemed completely appropriate for this group.
The ensemble’s balance was a little off in the first ten measures or so, such that I couldn’t hear some of the notes in the first theme. But bless them for repeating the opening section, because (a) that’s what the score says to do, and (b) on the repeat, all balance issues were resolved. That sense of the group’s thinking on their feet and making ad hoc adjustments is one of the really exciting things about a live performance that a recording generally doesn’t provide.
And one thing about the first movement that makes my “that again” so supremely jerky is that the first movement’s abbreviated recap is always new. It was especially exhilarating this time, though, because of Ms. Hwang’s and Ms. Sudweeks’ arresting rendition of the second subject, a tune which is—pace Paul Schiavo, who provided the program notes—decidedly un-dancelike, unless you call it some kind of weird, out-of-context sarabande. Unless I counted wrong, it’s the only time in the movement that the two violas play that particular tune together, and the effect is that of the melody coming home in every sense. On Tuesday, that homecoming made the hair on the back of my neck stand up; it was as if two Met-quality mezzos, maybe two Amnerises, were singing the theme.
I sometimes think the second movement might be the work’s weak point, but any slow movement that can fool me every time into thinking I must have dozed off and they’re already playing the scherzo is anything but weak. The third movement’s scherzo worked its luminous magic and then disappeared like a gorgeous little puff of smoke. Then the fourth movement began with Mr. Feder playing so aggressively that I thought he was kidding, but the rest of the ensemble picked up his energy and ran all the way with it.
From where I sat, it was clear that the group was having a blast playing the work. I could see the two violists, the two cellists, and the right side of Mr. Kerr’s face, but all indications were that the other half of his face and the rest of the ensemble were also getting a kick out of it. It’s too bad the hall wasn’t full. Dallas, you really ought to be turning out for these SOLUNA events; you don’t know what you’re missing.
Crabby (but justifiably so) postscript: One thing about the evening that really, really bugged me was those photographers. I understand the need to document the occasion, but under those circumstances, photographers (and those hiring them) must understand the obligation to be unobtrusive, and as little as possible of that. Don’t work like you would in a rock concert, and don’t keeping coming back every five minutes! A still photograph of a group playing the first movement in a performance like this will not be appreciably different from one taken during the second movement—or the third, or the fourth. One photo of each group—in action, but only if you must—should be plenty, especially for a skilled photographer.