What do belly dancers and Wagner have in common? Absolutely nothing. However, the Dallas Symphony Gala, with a pre-concert dinner and a glittering after party, combined the two disparate elements and tossed in superstar violinist Joshua Bell as the crowning feature (my interview with him is here). Parties need a theme, I suppose. Maybe something from Rossini's opera The Italian Girl in Algiers would have been more in keeping?
The event brought out Dallas’ finest with ladies in dramatic gowns and men in the same ol’ boring black tuxedos. Face it guys, the best we can do to add a little bling is a colorful tie and vest. The women, on the other hand, had plunging everything, vibrant colors and lots of sparkling pizzazz. The after party was an enjoyable event, with an open bar and tasty desert bites.
The concert was short, without an intermission. Music Director Jaap van Zweden led the orchestra in four selections from Wagner, before Bell arrived for the main event. He opened with the mystical Prelude to Act One of the composer’s opera Lohengrin. This is a difficult work to pull off. It is just one long crescendo and decrescendo; a musical glimpse of the clouds parting to reveal the Holy Grail and then closing again to keep it hidden from human sight. Van Zweden paced it perfectly. It started, barely audible, in the violins and built to a shattering climax before receding back into mists where it originated. The only regret was that the opera didn’t follow.
While equally excellent, the other Wagner selections couldn’t compare to such a special performance. The Act Three Prelude from the same opera had lots of blazing brass and excitement. This is also a difficult piece to conduct because it is in two beats per measure but the music is moving very quickly. It is a problem to make such slow and controlled gestures in such a fast piece. Van Zweden solved the problem by not keeping anything resembling a strict two beat throughout. Some things he did looked weird, but so what? The effect was electrifying.
Sticking with Lohengrin, the chorus sang the Bridal Chorus. Zillions of brides have tottered down the aisle to the strains of this universally known selection. I have always thought it odd music for the occasion, since Elsa’s marriage in the opera turned out so unfortunately. The chorus, under its new director, Joshua Habermann, sounded terrific. The German diction was excellent and the blend was markedly improved. The big choral works to come later in the season are eagerly anticipated.
More Wagner followed. The Entrance of the Guests from Tannhäuser made use of the chorus again. It was rushed, just ever so slightly, but enough to make Wagner’s characteristic musical turns (an ornamentation that makes use of the surrounding notes) blurred in the orchestra and unsingable for the chorus. Once again, van Zweden timed the dynamic buildup just right to create Wagner’s dramatic effect
The Violin Concerto of Max Bruch is a prime example of what musicians call a warhorse, trotted out way too often. Indubitably, every violinist on the stage has played it, one time or another, and many when they were a student. But not like this.
Joshua Bell paid such close attention to the details, taking chance after chance with the give and take of the phrasing, that the concerto sounded like a new piece. Much like an old dark and dreary painting, once the curators have cleaned off the centuries of dirt and grime, reveals a brighter sunlit scene. There is no doubt that Bell is the one of greatest violinist of our time. Van Zweden, a fine violinist himself, was with Bell every step of the way and they delivered a wonderful, and revelatory, performance.