Dallas — On Friday evening at the Myerson Symphony Center, The Dallas Symphony presented a concert of music by Phillip Glass and Anton Bruckner. Both of these composers have a fanatical following with an equal measure of skeptical listeners on the other side. Bruckner can be considered monumental by some and overstuffed Wagner by others. Likewise, Glass is either one of the great composers of our time, with its mesmerizing and meditative qualities, or a charade of a composer who simply repeats triadic patterns ad nauseam thanks to the cut ‘n’paste abilities of music notation computer programs.
You have to give Glass credit for breaking out of the modernist dissonancy that infected composers in the mid-20th century by revisiting a C major chord, even if he did get stuck on it. To be fair, he does a much better job with dramatic works, such as operas and film scores, than he does with absolute musical scores such as this one.
The program opened with Glass’ three-year-old Double Concerto for Two Pianos played by sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, the world-famous French piano-duo team. It has all of the hallmarks of a work by Glass, such as repetitive and shifting tonal centers and rhythmic patterns. Depending on your opinion of Glass, it was 22 minutes of hypnotic music that felt endless or a gorgeous and fascinating meditative experience. One frequently mentioned slam against Glass is that it is music by the yard. As if to validate that drollery, this piece ends abruptly, as if the last page was missing.
I am certain that the Labèques did a fine job of playing the simplistic piano parts, but Music Director Emeritus Jaap van Zweden let the orchestra play too loudly much of the time, which covered their efforts more often than not. However, the audience loved it and gave a spontaneous standing vocation that demanded many curtain calls. (Many also left afterwards.)
Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 8, on the second part of the program, also suffered from exaggerated dynamics, reaching ear-splitting fortissimo passages early on in the work. (This is a complaint more usually lodged at young, eager, and more inexperienced artists rather than experienced musicians such as van Zweden.) However, his tendency to overplay brought out the Wagnerism in Bruckner’s score—Wagner Heavy, as it were.
Also on the minus side, van Zweden’s tempi were erratic. He achieved what one would think was impossible: bringing in this symphony considerably under the usual 82 minutes while making it feel slow. Mostly this effect was created in the slow movement, which van Zweden drenched in rubato at the end of almost every phrase. On the other hand, the scherzo was remarkably fast, except for the trio parts.
However, in must be said that to get the most out of hearing a Bruckner symphony, you need to enter Einstein’s cone of time dilation, whereby clocks slow down as they move closer to the speed of light. Bruckner time in infinite space is definitely slower than “real” time on the Earth. You have to leave planetary time behind as you enter Bruckner’s galactic sonic world.
On the plus side, The DSO sounded magnificent throughout. This symphony uses a greatly expanded instrumentation, especially in this, his second version of the score (1890). He uses triple winds and brass, contrabass tuba, eight horns (four of which double on Wagner Tubas; really just small euphoniums), three harps and an expanded percussion battery. It is a showpiece for any orchestra, to be sure. All of the principal players have extended solo passages and played them with elegance and precision. Except for a few passages in which the Wagner tubas became overly excited, the balance throughout the entire symphony was impeccable.
Actually, the star of the Bruckner performance was the Meyerson Symphony Center itself. After the release of Bruckner’s huge chords, the sound reverberated in the performance space for a surprisingly long time. Van Zweden wisely let it ring and hang in the ether, until it completely faded before continuing. The effect was astounding.
A shoulder injury required a relatively recent revision of van Zweden’s podium technique. All of his gestures never rise above chest level, and in a more compact frame his left hand mirrors the right one more than before the injury. Actually, all of this is an improvement from his past, sometimes overly extravagant pre-injury motions. He is still grim-faced, scowling and demanding rather than inviting, in addition to his oft-commented upon micro-managing of almost every note. But overall, his current baton technique, and general physicality, has benefited from his fairly recent reconsideration.
All these quibbles aside, this was a fine performance of Bruckner’s Eighth. It was a pleasure to hear this piece, which is not performed as often as the composer’s other symphonic work.