A big New York "thank you" is in order to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which, as part of the Spring for Music Festival, presented the New York premiere of the secular oratorio August 4, 1964, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday. In addition to the DSO, performers included soloists Indira Mahajan, soprano, Kristine Jepson, mezzo-soprano, Vale Rideout, tenor, Rod Gilfry, baritone, and the Dallas Symphony Chorus (prepared superbly by Donald Krehbiel), all conducted by DSO Music Director Jaap van Zweden.
The work was commissioned by the DSO for the 100th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's birth, and originally premiered in Dallas in 2008 (and was performed last week in Dallas as well, in preparation for the New York concert).
Aug. 4, 1964, was the date that Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara decided to bomb North Vietnam, and the date that the bodies of three slain civil rights workers were found in Mississippi. The female soloists represent the mothers of two of the murdered civil rights workers, while the tenor portrays Robert McNamara, and the baritone President Johnson.
The composer has maintained a musical style he calls "standing on the shoulders" of earlier masters─in other words, original, but based on musical tradition. Stucky began his composition process with "Elegy," a central movement of orchestral music that seemed to waver between anxiety, sadness, despair and resignation. A descending half-step motif from this movement was employed in various places throughout the whole work. The DSO provided a majestic sound in this movement and throughout the entire piece, with special emphasis on the beautifully blended mellow brass section and the lush strings. The exceptionally good acoustics of both Carnegie Hall and Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center were certainly enabling factors.
Stucky stated in the program notes that he deliberately tried to avoid writing "another Britten War Requiem or Adams Nixon in China,” but he does borrow judiciously from Britten in his musical depiction of shooting, using, as Britten did, rapidly repeating brass and percussion notes. But how else would a composer depict the rapid firing of weapons?
Sheer's libretto includes poetry of Stephen Spender, as well as recollections from various historical sources. He presented the composer with certain problems: some sections based on historical records, while necessary to tell the story, were prosaic and dry (one is rarely called upon to set a presidential agenda or cabinet meeting to music). Stucky solved this problem brilliantly in several places (though not all) by creating overlapping statements by the soloists or by the chorus, which gave them the proper musical impetus. In another place, Sheer's juxtaposing of the ideas of the death of sons (in Mississippi and then immediately "so many sons" in Vietnam) was extremely effective. Kudos also for the use of projected subtitles.
A few slight imperfections did not detract from what was, on the whole, a brilliant performance. Worthy of singling out, in addition to the wonderful orchestral color (credit to both composer and conductor), are mezzo soprano Kristine Jepson, whose voice was rich and beautiful throughout her range; and the richness of the chorus, especially at the end of “Never to Forget!"
The large New York audience gave the composer, librettist and performers a breathtaking moment of silence at the end, followed by a prolonged, rousing, and well-deserved standing ovation.