Thursday, May 23, 2013

We Should Have Been At The Kimbell

On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I heard the Dallas Symphony in a program devoted to music of Wagner. The conductor was the orchestra’s Music Director, Jaap van Zweden.

Act I of “Die Walküre" was the primary work on the program.

Zweden was lost in “Die Walküre". Wagnerian melos was not to be heard under Zweden’s baton. The conductor had no grasp of the drama depicted in one of Wagner’s greatest spans of music; the conductor was unable to unleash the emotions that surge through Wagner’s score.

The ebb and flow Wagner built into his music, a never-ending cycle of tension and release, had been ironed out by Zweden. Everything was too swift, everything was too light, everything was too objective, everything was too uninflected, everything was too vaporous. Zweden might as well have been conducting a “number” opera, given his inability to build a head of steam and command a long time span.

I wondered whether Zweden’s swift tempi constituted a concession to an inadequate cast of singers.

The Siegmund was Clifton Forbis, possessor of a dry, grainy voice that sounded years past its prime. (It is my understanding that Forbis is in the process of giving up the stage.)

The Sieglinde was Heidi Melton, who did not for one second capture Sieglinde’s radiance. Melton has no individuality at all: Melton’s voice lacks distinctive qualities, Melton’s artistry is all-purpose. Wagnerians would be unable to pick out Melton’s Sieglinde from a police audio lineup.

The Hundig was Eric Owens. Owens had the only first-class voice onstage. Owens’s voice is incredibly rich, with amazing depth and resonance, and it is a voice of great beauty and of unique timbre. Owens is destined to achieve stardom.

Owens is not a Wagner singer. Owens’s voice is an “open”, “American” voice, with an open, American sound, ideal for American music—and no other. Owens was at sea in trying to shape Wagner’s phrases—and his German seemed to have been picked up in Appalachia.

Owens had been scheduled to sing Adams’s “The Wound Dresser” with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra this season. It was an appearance Josh and I had looked forward to. We hope the SPCO will reschedule “The Wound Dresser” with Owens in the next season or two.

Three Wagner orchestral works were played prior to Act I of “Die Walküre”.

The concert began with the Prelude to “Lohengrin”.

Zweden chose a very quick tempo, but—fatally—he could not find a pulse, and the players were unable to help Zweden find a pulse. The result was a disastrous performance, false entries everywhere, uncomfortable looks on faces all over the stage. Balancing was an issue: the brass was too prominent, the strings under-nourished and colorless and faceless.

I was dumbfounded. The “Lohengrin” Prelude is nothing more than an extended crescendo-decrescendo. Any conductor should be able to lead the work capably—and yet Zweden had offered a performance that would have been unacceptable in a provincial outpost.

The Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin” followed. Zweden played it as orchestral showpiece, in the manner of Arthur Fiedler.

Next came the Prelude to “Die Meistersinger”. Zweden’s tempi were too fast, and he did not catch the work’s exultation and grandeur—or even the necessary dignity and nobility.

The counterpoint of “Meistersinger” neither registered nor “spoke” as it must—“Meistersinger” is nothing but a glorious display of counterpoint writing—and balancing issues clearly were the root cause of the counterpoint deficiencies. Instrumental lines that should have been heard were inaudible, subsidiary lines that should have remained subsidiary often became overpowering. Counterpoint not telling in Zweden’s hands, the “Meistersinger” Prelude came across much like a French potpourri overture by Hérold—the very thing that would have appalled the composer of “Meistersinger”.

I last heard the Dallas Symphony in February 2008. The orchestra was in much better shape in 2008 than it is today.

On Sunday, balancing was off all afternoon. I did not hear a proper balance once.

The string section was unable to produce the glow Wagner’s music demands. It has been a long time since I heard such featureless, bland, anemic string playing.

The winds did not register as they must, weaving in and out of the musical line, taking charge one moment, disappearing into the orchestral fabric the next.

The brass playing was very disappointing. The section did not produce a uniform, integrated sound.

All afternoon, the musicians played as if they were bored by the music, and unconvinced by Zweden’s interpretations.

Perhaps the Dallas musicians were suffering from exhaustion at the end of a long concert season that had included a grueling tour of Europe.

Perhaps substitute musicians contributed to the haphazard nature of the orchestra’s work. Numerous substitute musicians were on the Dallas concert platform on Sunday, including two brass principals (trumpet, horn) that are members of orchestras elsewhere (Chicago, Baltimore).

Whatever the causes of the shortcomings, what we heard on Sunday was basically unforgivable, coming as it did from what is supposed to be a major ensemble.

If Sunday’s Wagner concert is representative of Zweden’s work in Dallas, the Dallas Symphony has a major problem on its hands.

Josh and I should have devoted Sunday afternoon to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.


  1. I'm happy to lean that you have embraced Wagner. A few years ago you wrote that you had not yet warmed to this music.

    My favorite recording of "Die Walkuere" is Karajan's on DG. But my favorite Wagner is still "Die Meistersinger." This opera, despite the hype surrounding "Tristan," may be the greatest of ALL operas.

    Too bad about the Dallas Symphony. Too bad that they are saddled with the most unforgiving acoustics in America.

  2. I think “Die Meistersinger” is unbelievable. I have always thought “Die Meistersinger” is unbelievable.

    Dallas being saddled with Zweden is the problem. I was not at all impressed by Zweden—and neither, apparently, is the local audience: the Dallas Morning News keeps reporting that attendance at Zweden concerts is abysmal.

    You should look at the Dallas Symphony subscription concerts for next season: bad programs, bad conductors. No wonder the public stays away.

    When you have time, look at the SPCO subscription concerts for next season. Next season is not appealing—yet nonetheless Saint Paul will have better guest conductors than Dallas (which should never be the case).

  3. Tonight, by the way, is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps."

  4. We'll get the celebrations under way!

    When you have an opportunity, please read Randol Schoenberg's weblog entry on the subject.

    Have you looked at next season's SPCO programming? I am curious to learn your thoughts.

  5. Oh, goodness! De Waart? Better than any guest conductor in Dallas? Oh, goodness! My take on the season: Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring. (Did I miss a month?)

    To celebrate "The Rite of Spring" tonight, I celebrated Halloween early by dressing up as the blind old sage from Act I and going around the neighborhood taking collections on behalf of "SPOC," "The Society for the Propagation of Cancer."

    It was only for an hour, you see. I came back with $17.50.

  6. I snored simply reading through next season's list of SPCO concerts.

    Well . . . at least the money you raised tonight was for a good cause!

  7. We did nothing tonight to celebrate the "Rite" centennial.

    Unless you call eating stuffed pork chops a celebration . . .