Dallas — The assassination of President John F. Kennedy hangs over the head of Dallas like a serious disease without any symptoms. We know it is there, but it is something internal, deep within our psyche, that outside observers cannot ascertain. On Nov. 22, especially this year of its 50th anniversary, all the world sees our hidden infirmary. We are certainly a much better city than we were then. Racial equality is, like a child learning to walk, is still tottery, but up and walking. The number of Afro-Americans in positions of power is impressive and we have a poplar Hispanic lesbian sheriff. We lave a long way to go before all of the citizens of this town are treated equally, but we can be proud of our progress since those cary days.
The arts community has excelled in making the commemoration meaningful. Arts groups have produced an entire month of commemorative concerts and there are other new works, written on the subject, that will appear right up until the end of the season in May.
The Dallas Symphony rolled out its JFK-oriented concert on Thursday evening at the Meyerson Symphony Center (experienced by this review on Friday). The choice of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, subtitled Eroica, was a natural choice since the second movement is a frequently played selection as a memorial or at funerals of such import that an orchestra is present. It is indeed a funeral march, with a sunnier center section, which implies that all is not lost. In fact, this movement was played by the Boston Symphony, in the middle of a performance, when the news of the assassination in 1963 reached Music Director Erich Leinsdorf. The music was quickly distributed to the orchestra and afterwards, the remainder of the program was not played.
The DSO program opened with a newly commissioned work, The World is Very Different Now, by Conrad Tao, a 19-year-old Chinese-American composer. The piece accompanied a video work of art by Peter J.G. van Ingen. Projected on a screen behind the orchestra, this video made use of historical and contemporary footage in rapid fire switching so that the past and present merged. Some video effects were striking, such as scenes of traffic reflected on the infamous book depository which eventually became a summer’s day sky. It ended with a series of faces of modern day Dallasites of all ages, conditions and ethnicities. It went on a little long, but that did not diminish its impact.
Tao’s piece also went on a little long, and that did diminish its impact. It was the same length as the video, but there the relationship between the two ended. Tao’s score did not appear to try to match the images, which would frequently change while they music remained the same and vice versa. Perhaps this was the point, much like the John Cage’s music and Merce Cunningham dances were prepared separate from each other and trusted serendipity to work its magic. Whatever the intention, on Friday, video and music were in two different worlds and serendipity was AWOL.
On the positive side, the video gave you something to look at while Tao’s piece moaned and groaned for 17 minutes. Huge complex chords swelled and then retreated. Angular melodies were accompanied by pulsing chords. Brass fanfares announced nothing, although there was one clever treatment of the morning bugle call, Revelle, in tone clusters. Minimalist influences kept uncomfortable company next to atonal neo-classicism. A cowbell, or some other piece of metal, was frequently hit, giving a dreadful clank. It was reminiscent of a work heard years ago about the streets of India, where cows are everywhere.
You could tell, by watching DSO Music Director Jaap van Zweden’s beat patterns that the meter of Tao’s piece changed frequently, but you couldn’t hear it, as his chords continued to ebb and flow. His use of a saxophone was a nice addition to the sonority and whoever played it deserves high praise.
Tao is undoubtably a talented composer and also, reportedly, a fine pianist. However, for such an important occasion, the DSO should have offered the commission to a composer that is at the height of their prowess and has found a distinctive voice rather than a prodigiously gifted student still showing the influences that he will someday amalgamate into his own style. Maybe even a Dallas-based composer? Oh well.
There was one other work on the program written about the assassination: Darius Milhaud’s Murder of a Great Chief of State. This short work was written in a burst of inspiration right after the President was killed. Descending scales in the strings, starting at the top of the violins ended at Charon’s boat dock in the bottom of the bass section. Tone clusters gave the sense that all was not right in the world. Deep brass chords smelled of disaster, while an angular melody felt like it had been shattered. This was a very effective piece in describing the mood of the nation in November of 1963.
Joshua Bell is one of the few classical artists who can sell out a hall, which he did on Friday. Unlike some artists whose reputation exceeds their abilities, Bell is always amazing. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is a piece worthy of his prodigious talents—it is one of the most difficult in the repertoire and also one of the most satisfying. Bell, assisted by van Zweden (who has surely played the work himself), delivered his own take on the concerto and the effect was one of an extended improvisation.
This is not to imply that he took a lot of liberties where they were not appropriate. In fact, he was scrupulously accurate, giving snap to pick-up notes and dotted patterns. Part of this improvisatory nature was provided by the composer by making the first movement cadenza part of the development rather than a time-out moment of virtuoso shenanigans struck in the middle of the piece. Bell also took great pleasure in adding slides here and there, which is part of the style of the piece.
As for tempi, they were fine except that Bell went with the first word of the marking for the last movement, but ignored the composer’s warning. It is marked Allegro ma non tanto, (fast, but not too much). When he got to the second theme, perhaps the most difficult passage in the concerto, he found himself pushed to the max to get through the flurry of notes and up-bow staccato thirds. This passage is always precarious, even in the most masterful hands, and rarely comes off correctly. While Bell didn’t get through it unscathed, he played it as well as any in memory.
The program ended with Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. This is one of the great pieces in the symphonic repertoire and every conductor of any stature has their own take on it. Van Zweden consistently took quicker tempi than we are used to hearing. Indeed, all of the movements, except the funeral march, are marked with some flavor of Allegro. The first is Allegro con brio (with spirit), the third is Allegro vivace (lively) and the last is Allegro molto (much or very).
Beethoven’s own metronome markings are quite fast by most contemporary performance practices, although the historically accurate performance movement moves the work right along. Van Zweden was at the outer limits of Allegro, but once you got used to the tempo (a matter of just a few moments), you no longer noticed the quicker tempi and felt like the symphony was somehow refreshed.
Van Zweden also eschewed big ritards and excessive rubato as the piece progressed — a little here and there, added like salt and pepper, but not ladled with romantic gravy. This symphony stands at the threshold between the classical and romantic eras and, in this performance, you become more aware of its origins than where it was headed. It is, after all, nascent romanticism in spite of all of its advances, especially in the slow movement.
The orchestra, which was able to keep up with the tempi, delivered an inspired performance. All of the solo winds were marvelous and the intonation was exact. The two trumpeters used rotary instruments, which offer a warmer sound that modern piston trumpets, better mimicking the sound of the natural trumpets of Beethoven’s era.
David Cooper’s horn section, staffed with outstanding players, excelled, and got the first solo bow at the end. The piece is only written for three horns, so the fourth horn sat as assistant principal to alleviate some of the burden Beethoven puts on the leading part.
Moment of Geek: The famous horn passage in the middle section of the scherzo is like a secret handshake among the initiates into the private horn club. Anytime three horn payers are together, or even when they meet as strangers, they immediately pull out their instruments and play this passage. I have seen it happen on a city bus. Backstage, at operas or symphony concerts, you will hear it rise up over the cacophony of the warmup. So it was little wonder that the three DSO players gave it a terrific performance: right together and perfectly in tune.
Overall, this was a concert that will remain in the memory for a definitive, albeit original, Sibelius concerto and Beethoven symphony. The morsel of Milhaud reminded us of this ignored composer’s gifts. Further, we were introduced to a young composer, Tao, who shows promise and bears watching. What more could you want?