What a difference a day makes. Composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer have created a powerful dramatic cantata based on two events that occurred on August 4, 1964. That date is the title of the composition that was presented on Friday by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in a one-time only concert. This piece was commissioned by the DSO in 2008 to celebrate the 100th birthday of President Lyndon B. Johnson and they are taking it to Carnegie Hall this week. Friday’s concert did double duty. Not only was it a warm up for New York but it was also a recording session for a later release.
It is somewhat surprising that the DSO picked this piece to take on tour. It is very expensive in that it requires transportation, housing, and per diem for a very large and augmented orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Chorus and four outstanding vocal soloists. They could have taken a bigger show piece with the same personnel for the same costs─something like the Verdi Requiem or the Brahms German Requiem, which they knocked out of the park with a superb performance recently. However, on the positive side, taking a piece like this should create a lot of buzz in New York and demonstrate that the DSO is fully committed to performing and commissioning the music of our time. The DSO is to be commended for their decision.
August 4, 1964 concerns two events that coincidentally happened on the same day. The bodies of three slain civil rights workers were discovered in Mississippi and the mistaken news that a U.S. ship was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin drew a bombing of North Vietnam that basically started the American involvement in that tragic and costly war. Scheer fashioned his excellent libretto from actual sources, such as White House and defense department tape recorded meetings as well as other documents he found in the LJB Library in Austin. You can read my interview with Scheer here.
Scheer presents his interwoven tale through four characters.
As the mothers of two of the workers found dead that day, Soprano Indira Mahajan portrays Mrs. Chaney and Kristine Jepson takes the role of Mrs. Goodman. Dressed in period costumes, both women used their strong voices and dramatic abilities to good effect. Tenor Vale Rideout made a nervous and fretful Robert McNamara and Baritone Rod Gilfry caught LBJ’s blunt and gruff exterior as well as his inner vulnerability. Both Gilfry and Rideout had some vocal trouble near the end. Most of the blame goes to Stucky, who wrote some passages unnecessarily high. The chorus, magnificently trained by Donald Krehbiel, comments on and furthers the action. Projected subtitles not only help with comprehension but also cite the sources of the text.
While all four of the soloists were effective in their roles, it would be much better if they didn’t have their heads buried in the score. Gilfry was particularly egregious in this regard. When Rideout put the score down to sing his self-flagellant aria, "Had we Known," he was spellbinding. Music Director Jaap van Zweden also seemed to be overly tied to the score. For a tour de force such as this, taken to Carnegie Hall to show the world what a magnificent symphony lives in Dallas, all the soloists should have been memorized and van Zweden barely glancing at the score.
This is not a new piece so there is not much reason to review it this time. It is still the dichotomy that it was at its premiere. There are moments that are heartbreakingly moving, such as the incorporation throughout of poet Stephan Spender’s meditation "I think continually of those who were truly great." There are also moments where a brassy tah-dah major chord on the downbeat sounds hokey. But mostly, Stucky’s mixture of minimalism, romanticism, Americanism, prairie music and impressionism serves the drama well. It may not be great music, but it is a great piece.
The overall impression is that this is a powerful composition that inspires the listener and makes us reconsider this historical turning point. Scheer’s brilliance in putting the text together cannot be underestimated. Here are two events whose consequences still reverberate to this day. One was very intimate, the grief of two mothers, while the other, the bombing of North Vietnam, was played out on the world stage. As the piece comes to its quiet conclusion, the audience is aware that they have been taking on a journey and have been changed by the experience. What more could you ask of a symphony concert?
The DSO will perform the piece May 11 at Carnegie Hall.