Dallas — Hearing a live performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ expansive Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony,” is a rare event. It calls for huge orchestral forces, including two harps and a significant percussion battery. It also requires a baritone and soprano soloist, sung here by the bright soprano Sarah Fox and the baritone Nmon Ford, as well as a large chorus. To top it off, the symphony, which runs about 70 minutes, needs a substantial pipe organ.
Luckily all of those prerequisites come easy for the Dallas Symphony, which presents the work this weekend, under the baton of Robert Spano, the Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus and also principal guest conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony.
The pipe organ requirement is what makes it a bright and shiny object for the DSO, which happens to have one of the best concert hall organs in the world. The Meyerson Symphony Center’s Lay Family Organ is a spectacular instrument with an immense array of sonic resources, and complaints about its lack of use abound. The Dallas Symphony Chorus, conducted by Joshua Habermann, also suffers from programmatic neglect.
As it is with most things in the classical music world, this situation is the result of a couple of factors. One is funding. Even an organ recital requires that the hall be fully opened and completely staffed. To boot, they are notoriously poorly attended because, well, organ recitals are usually met with a big yawn — even from other organists. While there are a large number of orchestral works that use the chorus, there are not as many as you would assume. Thus, pieces that use a chorus are few in number and that particular cupboard is even barer when it comes to works that use both.
You would think after all that grumbling that the hall would be packed, wouldn’t you? Not so on Saturday night.
The unexpected surprise is that the Vaughn-Williams, which is based on the poetry of Walt Whitman, is paired with the world premiere of Violin Concerto No. 3, commissioned from composer George Tsontakis and written specifically for DSO Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson.
Tsontakis is not only well known as a composer but as a conductor and violist and as a respected educator. He holds the impressive title of Distinguished Faculty, Composer-in-Residence of the Bard College Conservatory of Music in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. This combination should make him a natural to compose a violin concerto and the results prove out that hypothesis.
Even familiarity with a composer’s oeuvre doesn’t guarantee that you’ll know what to expect when commissioning a new work. The composer might be going through a dramatic change in compositional style and turn out something unexpected. On the other side of the equation, Levinson is a known element and is considered to be on the top of the list of violinists concertizing today. Still, you never know how the new work will fit with his abilities and musical sensibilities. Violinists choose repertoire with which they are copacetic, and no one can tell if that magic will happen between a soloist and a new work.
Levinson has complete mastery of technique, which is expected, but he is also quite musically flexible. In addition to his important chair in the DSO and keeping up a busy schedule of guest appearances all over the world, he is the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. Further, he in the process of starting a similar program based at the Kawai Piano Gallery in Richardson.
After spending some time with the new concerto and mastering its almost transcendental technical demands, it turns out to be a good fit. Most importantly, it’ clear that he really enjoys playing it. Spano also enjoys the music and he and Levinson appear to agree on how it should go.
The concerto is a combination of neo-romantic, modernist, and even some jazz influences. The composer uses a five-note motive that moves by upward leaps and bases the entire work on that musical gesture. Instead of using its discrete repetitions as building blocks for an ever-higher structure, Tsontakis lays his motivic bricks side by side and builds the piece in a process of accumulation. Even the scherzo movement’s theme is a hurried version of this seminal motif.
As Tsontakis manipulates this sparse piece of music in a Beethoven-like manner, his concerto begins to sound vaguely familiar even on the first hearing. But our patience is rewarded at the very end when he finally reveals it, all assembled, as a lovely and singingly neo-romantic melody. But even then, he continues to let the orchestra bubble in discontentment under Levinson’s gorgeous melodic realization.
It was a choice. Let the melody he so carefully built finally sing out with minimal harmonic support or let it float over the busy accompaniment he established throughout the concerto until the end. Perhaps it represents the noisy hubbub of everyday life from which there is scant relief. Of course, there isn’t a right answer to this conundrum and Tsontakis’ choice is as valid as any other. Actually, as the composer, his choice is the only one possible.
Vaughn Williams' "A Sea Symphony" was excellently performed by the musicians of the DSO, especially the principal players. The two soloists and the DSO chorus delivered a richly sung reading. The precision of the chorus is a tribute to the excellence of its music director, Joshua Habermann.
Spano conducted the whole shebang with clarity of gestures, excellent pacing and an obvious mastery of every note of the score. Physically, he tends to mirror his hands, extending them outwards from his sides and slightly bending forward at the waist. This makes for a humbler impression rather than the usual “Great Maestro” attitude sported by many who in the trade who conduct the audience as much as the orchestra. This is certainly preferable to the “Lenny lite” impression that is all the rage on today’s podia. In general, this is a good thing, although standing more upright would make him appear less anxious about what is happening or, worse, what he fears might happen. In short, he is a no-nonsense conductor who knows the score, is a natural musician and has an uncanny sense of pacing.
“A Sea Symphony” suffers from the same problem as Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. They both have mind-blowing, knock-your-socks-off openings that set up expectations that are impossible to sustain for over an hour. Spano could have mitigated this problem somewhat by employing much more dynamic diversity. Once a forte passage was initiated, he kept the work at that level for a significant period of time. The entire stretch of the symphony is marked forte, but can’t there be variations of that dynamic within the section, letting it ebb and flow into actual phrases?
One unusual bravo has to go to the timpanist. His dynamic level was perfection throughout. Other, less astute, timpanists consistently overplay the dynamics in performances of this symphony with flashing mallets raised high in the air on releases — like a baton twirler.
There was another interesting performance in the percussion section: the player who manages the huge crash cymbals. On Saturday, his cymbalism was terrific. Each crash was different and was only appropriate to that exact point in the music. This is rarely the case, which was why his remarkably musical performance was so noticeable at the performance reviewed. This musical subtlety is important in “A Sea Symphony,” which is inundated with such spectacularities.
One humorous but unavoidable side effect of the crash cymbals’ is one of Vaughn-Williams’ “tells.” The act of picking up the two large, shiny objects is an accurate predictor of an impending big moment. After multiple occurrences, this action becomes more and more obvious. (Wouldn’t it be fun if one time he made a fuss about picking them up, waited for a moment and then set them back down, uncrashed?)
Since this work uses voices throughout, that usually means that texts are required. Vaughn-Williams didn’t just pick any ol’ text — he chose some of Walt Whitman’s eloquently plainspoken verses. Unfortunately, the mushy diction from both soloists and the chorus made the poet’s rough-hewn verses hard to understand.
Of course, the management will point out that the texts are in the program, which is true. However, it is in type so miniscule that it can hardly be read in bright light, let alone a darkened theater. Why not take a page from the opera world and project the texts above the stage for all to see? They have done this in the Meyerson before, and it should de rigueur in the future.
That aside, it was a thrill to hear the glorious opening of “A Sea Symphony,” as well as the rest of it, in the acoustical marvel that is the Meyerson.