Monday, March 31, 2008

Necessary Relief

Both Joshua and I have been exceedingly busy at work for the last few weeks, but at least we got to do a few things this past weekend, providing both of us with some necessary relief from work.

On Saturday afternoon, we went with my parents to Saint Paul to see the National Touring Company production of “The Drowsy Chaperone”. None of us had seen this show, although we had talked about seeing it in New York several times during its Broadway run.

The show was slight but charming, a series of inventive twists on typical theatrical devices from musical comedies of the 1920’s. We all liked the show very much.

The production was in tip-top shape, which pleased us no end. In the last couple of months, we had attended immensely disappointing National Touring Company productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “My Fair Lady”, productions that were tired, ragged and unappealing. “The Drowsy Chaperone” touring production, by contrast, was fresh as paint. A couple of theater-goers whose opinions I respect told us that this touring production was the equal of the Original Broadway Production, even though only one member of the Original Broadway Cast, Georgia Engel, participated in the national tour. I am pleased we decided to see this show. It was a delightful afternoon’s entertainment.

On Saturday night, we all went downtown to see “Sabrina Fair” at Theater In The Round. Although all of us had seen the Billy Wilder film based loosely upon the same material, none of us had seen the original 1953 Samuel Taylor play, a comedy of manners we found to be surprisingly durable. Why is this play so seldom revived?

The stage play does not depart significantly from the later film script, although Billy Wilder disliked Taylor’s play and film script so vehemently that Wilder had Taylor thrown off the film project and rewrote the script himself. (Taylor is best-known for his work for Alfred Hitchcock; Taylor was associated with several Hitchcock films, for which he was sometimes credited as screenwriter and sometimes not.)

“Sabrina Fair” is dated, naturally—it is a “well-made play” very much of its time, with all the negative and all the positive connotations that phrase suggests—but it makes for a highly enjoyable evening in the theater if performed with style and conviction. I thought that Theater In The Round’s production was about as good as such old-fashioned material can expect these days, and I am pleased we elected to see this show, too.

On Sunday afternoon, Josh and I went back downtown to hear soprano Kathleen Battle in recital. We had never heard Miss Battle in person, and we thought this might be our only chance to hear this singer who has almost disappeared from view.

The recital was excellent, which slightly surprised us. When Josh and I bought tickets, we were not quite sure what to expect, since Miss Battle has not appeared regularly in major venues for many years.

On the basis of Sunday’s recital, Miss Battle should still be singing in the most prestigious concert and recital halls everywhere.

Her voice is small, but focused. Her sound easily carried in the large hall (Orchestra Hall, capacity 2500 persons), although I am not confident that she could have been heard if accompanied by full orchestra.

Her sound remains lovely. The voice retains bloom, light and color. Her diction was exemplary. Her musical phrasing was intelligent, individual but unmannered. Miss Battle was, quite simply, one of the finest singers I have ever heard.

It was hard for me to believe that I was hearing a singer almost sixty years old. The voice was not dry. Intonation was pure all afternoon. Sustained notes were clean and sure of pitch, free from flattening or sharpening and free from wobble. These are not qualities one necessarily expects in a singer only months away from her 60th birthday.

Miss Battle was careful in placing a few notes, and no doubt her repertory had been chosen to present her to advantage. Nevertheless, this was a recital at the very highest level, and I would go hear her again in an instant.

Miss Battle began the recital with Purcell songs, and I thought she sang them as well as I have ever heard them, on disc or off. She followed with Schubert and Liszt, creditably, and Mendelssohn was the highlight of her German offerings. Her treatment of “On Wings Of Song” was magical, if not divine.

She also sang a group of French songs, followed by a couple of Spanish songs, and these selections, too, were above reproach.

Miss Battle ended the recital with a group of spirituals, and her treatment of these songs was simple, personal and deeply moving. I have never heard these songs so beautifully realized, not even on a Barbara Hendricks disc from the mid-1980’s I have cherished for years.

Miss Battle is a supremely musical singer, one of the most musical singers I have ever encountered. It is easy to understand why Herbert Von Karajan adored her.

Given how much voice she retains, it is regrettable that Miss Battle has been absent from concert platforms for so long. I hope her current round of appearances signals a permanent return to the concert stage.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Few Interesting Things

Joshua and I had a nice time in Oklahoma over Easter weekend, visiting with Joshua’s family. We were in Oklahoma for only 48 hours, arriving on Friday afternoon and departing on Sunday afternoon.

Both Josh and I continue to be very busy at work. The last couple of months have been filled with toil, and I fear it will go on until Memorial Day or thereabouts.

This coming weekend, at least, we have a few interesting things planned.

One of the local repertory theater companies is in the midst of a run of performances of Samuel Taylor’s 1953 comedy of manners, “Sabrina Fair”, the basis for the Billy Wilder film starring a young Audrey Hepburn at her most captivating. We plan to catch a performance this weekend.

The national touring company production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” is playing at the Ordway Center in Saint Paul, and we plan to catch a performance of that this weekend, too.

Soprano Kathleen Battle will present a recital at Orchestra Hall on Sunday, and Josh and I, wisely or not, bought tickets. Until the recital was announced, I had assumed that Kathleen Battle, for practical purposes, was retired. She has been absent from major venues for years. We decided to get tickets primarily out of curiosity, in addition to the fact that we did not want to miss out on any prospective onstage meltdown.

No one seems to be particularly interested in this year’s NCAA tournament. I am not as interested as usual, nor is Josh, nor is my father, nor are my brothers. Josh and I DID watch Saturday’s games, a couple of which were quite good, but our interest this year is limited.

No one is picking Wisconsin to win the tournament, but if Wisconsin continues to play as well as it did last weekend against Kansas State, Wisconsin will win the championship, and win it easily.

No one believes me when I mention this possibility.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Both Joshua and I have been extremely busy at work, to the point that we have become bleary-eyed.

On Thursday night, Josh and I and my parents went to Saint Paul to hear Lang Lang in recital.

I do not know what to make of Lang Lang. His fingers are amazing, obviously. As a pure keyboard talent, he is unrivaled. As a musician . . .well, that is another matter.

The recital began with Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 13 in B Flat Major, K. 333. I did not care for the Mozart, but I did not expect to care for Lang Lang’s Mozart.

The recital continued with Schumann’s Fantasia For Piano In C Major, Opus 17. I did not care for the Schumann, but I did not expect to care for Lang Lang’s Schumann.

After intermission, Lang Lang performed six Chinese songs arranged for piano. These songs should have been saved for an audience in Shanghai.

A Granados piece followed, after which Lang Lang programmed two Liszt works I thought would be right up his alley: Liszt’s arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde” and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.

I thought the Liszt works might make the recital worthwhile. I was wrong. There was no ecstasy and no release in the Liebestod, and there was no excitement and no tension in the Hungarian Rhapsody. There were, merely, lots of notes.

Lang Lang is only twenty-five years old, and perhaps he will become an interesting pianist in coming years. At present, he is not worth hearing, at least in the repertory he brought to the Twin Cities. He has the musicianship of a 16-year-old.

On Friday night, Josh and I and my parents went to Northrop Auditorium to see the State Ballet Of Georgia, from Tbilisi, perform “Giselle”.

Both the production and the performance were sort of musty. The stage designs were based upon designs by Alexandre Benois for the famed 1910 Ballet Russes production. The designs had a faded charm. The music was pre-recorded, with inevitable deadly results.

Nina Ananiashvili was the Giselle, and it was good to have an opportunity to see Ananiashvili in one of her signature roles, even as her career winds down. She is a great artist, with a captivating stage presence, and she knows all the subtleties of the role. She probably has danced Giselle too often, however, because there was no sense of discovery or wonder in her portrayal. Every detail had been worked out in advance and was performed by rote. She looked tired.

The State Ballet Of Georgia’s appearance in the Twin Cities was the final stop of what must have been a grueling American tour, changing cities every two or three days, offering only three programs. The dancers must be exhausted, physically and mentally, and they must be tired of dancing “Giselle”, “Don Quixote” and the same repertory program over and over. That is the impression the dancers left on Friday night.

“Giselle” is not an easy ballet to bring off. The steps pose no problem to professional dancers—but the romantic style required by the ballet does. The romantic style is alien to ballet dancers in the West, unless they are carefully and extensively coached by someone familiar with and dedicated to the romantic style. This seldom happens.

Russian dancers are still trained in the romantic style, but I do not think that the dancers of the State Ballet Of Georgia exemplified the best of today’s Russian dancers. This “Giselle” was certainly nothing special. The company itself is a work in progress, or so the dancing Friday night suggested. This tour was clearly undertaken to raise foreign currency, not to showcase an important company. There is an inexhaustible market for Russian ballet companies in the U.S., and Ananiashvili’s name on the bill no doubt guarantees box-office success. Nevertheless, the State Ballet Of Georgia’s tour of the U.S. remains a business transaction, not an artistic one. There was nothing about this “Giselle” worth touring, not even the presence of Ananiashvili, who has moved far beyond the romantic repertory since her early appearances in the West.

Perhaps I was too tired to enjoy the performance.

However, Josh hated the evening, and my parents said, on the way home, “Why do we keep going to these touring ballet things, which always prove to be so disappointing?” The answer, of course, is that there are not many chances to see stagings of full-length ballet classics in the Twin Cities—and when companies come here for visits, ballet lovers generally take advantage of them.

Friday night’s “Giselle” was not a disaster, but it was as tired as I was. We all would have had a better time, I believe, if we had stayed home.

Watching “Giselle” meant that we missed Minnesota’s stunning upset win over Indiana Friday night in the Big Ten Tournament. At least we were able to see replays of the miraculous final few seconds, televised endlessly, nationwide, on Saturday. It would have been nice, however, to have seen it in real time.

We DID watch Minnesota play Illinois in Saturday afternoon’s semi-final—or, more accurately, we kept an eye on the game. For some reason, Illinois has Minnesota’s number this year. It was the third time that Illinois has defeated the Golden Gophers this season. Illinois, not a good team this year, happens to be a team that matches up particularly well against Minnesota.

This weekend, Josh and I helped my parents continue to get the house and yard ready for Easter. We looked so tired that my mother made us take a nap on Saturday afternoon, and again on Sunday afternoon. She said we looked anemic, and she threatened to make us eat liver.

On Good Friday, Josh and I will fly to Oklahoma to spend Easter weekend with Josh’s family.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fifty Years Of Vox Recordings

This weekend Joshua and I helped my mother and father begin to get things ready for Easter, when my brothers and my older brother’s family will be home.

Josh and I will spend Easter in Oklahoma with Josh’s family, as Josh has already written.

Josh and I went over to my parents’ house early Saturday morning, and we took my Dad out to breakfast. When we returned to my parents’ house, we spent the rest of the morning working on my mother’s kitchen floor, stripping old wax and applying a new coat.

We spent Saturday afternoon doing some cleaning around the house, and we spent Saturday night polishing silver and cleaning my mother’s kitchen cabinets.

Sunday, after church, we washed and cleaned the cars, inside and out, and we cleaned the downstairs family room from top to bottom. On Sunday night, we cleaned my father’s downstairs den and library.

During much of the weekend we listened to music. We listened to a set of discs Josh and I had borrowed from my father about a month ago and have been listening to ever since, “Fifty Years Of Vox Recordings”, a three-disc set containing four hours of music. The set celebrates the first half-century of the Vox label.

This is a fascinating set of discs, containing excerpts from Vox recordings issued from shortly after World War II until the mid-1990’s. There are 39 tracks in the set, covering repertory from Bach through Hindemith.

A few of the performances are exceptional. The set contains the finest recording ever made of Carlos Chavez’s Symphony No. 2 (“Sinfonia India”), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Eduardo Mata. The set also contains the finest recording ever made of Hugo Alfven’s Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (“A Midsummer Vigil”), performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Sergiu Comissiona.

The latter performance is one of many, many recordings Vox made with American orchestras in the 1970’s, when Vox virtually cornered the market in recording America’s second-tier ensembles. Orchestras in Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Minneapolis, Rochester, Saint Louis and Salt Lake City all recorded for the Vox label in that decade. With a handful of exceptions, all of these recordings have long since been deleted from the active catalog.

Some artists built their recording careers during those American Vox years, the two most conspicuous examples being conductors Erich Kunzel and Leonard Slatkin. Some artists had already lost their allures for the major labels by that time, leaving Vox as their only available recording outlet, the prime examples in this category being conductors Thomas Schippers (dumped by Columbia and EMI) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (abandoned by Mercury).

The Minnesota Orchestra under Skrowaczewski did a great deal of recording for Vox during the 1970’s. The Minnesota Orchestra recorded the complete Overtures and Incidental Music of Beethoven during the decade, as well as the complete orchestral works of Ravel. The Minnesota Orchestra also recorded Bartok, Handel, Mozart and Prokofiev for the label.

It is the Overture to Handel’s Water Music that makes an appearance in the Vox anniversary set, a peculiar choice to represent the Minnesota Orchestra’s work for Vox. It is a dull, slow, heavy performance, shortly to be overtaken by the original-instruments movement that was to transform the performance of Baroque music.

Some of the recorded selections on the set are indescribably bad. The first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, recorded in 1954 by the Vienna Symphony under Jonel Perlea, is awful. A performance of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, recorded in 1950 by Isidor Philipp and the Pro Musica Orchestra (whatever that is) under Jean-Baptiste Mari (the noted conductor of ballet scores), has to be heard to be believed. The first movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, recorded in 1951 by the Lamoureux Concerts Association Orchestra under Otto Klemperer, is the worst thing I have ever heard from that conductor (I blame the orchestra).

Most of the artists who spent entire careers recording for Vox are represented. Ingrid Haebler, Grant Johannesen, Anthony Newman, Guiomar Novaes, Michael Ponti, Ruggiero Ricci, Aaron Rosand and Abbey Simon all make appearances, although only Newman and Novaes are represented by more than one selection. Novaes, fittingly, is awarded two tracks; Newman, unaccountably, is awarded three. Few of the selections represent any of these artists at their best. One is left to ask, over and over, why a particular selection was chosen for inclusion in the set. A defensible answer seldom comes to mind.

Basically, this set of discs is a dog’s breakfast of musical items, seemingly programmed at random, with no thought given to a coherent listening program. It is akin to a radio station’s rush-hour listening schedule: a little of this and a little of that, with nothing too lengthy thrown into the mix. Bach is programmed after Villa-Lobos. Ives is programmed alongside Grieg. Handel is sandwiched between Debussy and Sousa. A Ruggles piece is followed by Wieniawski. It is a peculiar shuffle. I loved it.

The set is accompanied by a lavish and lengthy illustrated booklet setting forth the history of Vox. The text was written by noted program annotator Richard Freed. All in all, the set is a fascinating document of a recording label that is now, for practical purposes, defunct.

This week we will go to Saint Paul to hear Lang Lang in recital. The following evening we will go to Bloomington, where the State Ballet Of Georgia, from Tbilisi, will be in town to perform “Giselle”. Nina Ananiashvili will dance the title role.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Serious And Thoughtful

Last evening, after work, Joshua and I walked over to Orchestra Hall to hear Alfred Brendel in his final Twin Cities appearance.

According to the Minnesota Orchestra program booklet, this week marks Brendel’s sixth week of subscription-concert appearances with the Minnesota Orchestra. Brendel’s first appearance with the orchestra was in 1975.

The hall was almost sold out last night, a rightful tribute to Brendel’s stature.

I had heard Brendel several times in the past, but Joshua had never heard Brendel until last evening.

I have never been a Brendel fan, especially. Among pianists of the Central European school, I have always preferred his teacher, Edwin Fischer, as well as Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Backhaus.

Brendel is a serious and thoughtful pianist, to be sure, but I have never found him to be a magical pianist. His technique is satisfactory, no more, and his concentration ebbs and flows noticeably over the course of a performance. There is a start-and-stop quality to his playing, more apparent in recitals than in orchestral appearances. Further, Brendel’s playing is often perfunctory, as if he is fearful of displaying too much individuality or too much personality.

Last evening Brendel played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the most sublime works in the literature. I thought Brendel was splendid, perfectly observant of the work’s Classical requirements while lending weight and gravitas to Beethoven’s writing. I do not think I have ever heard Brendel to better effect than last evening. His final Minneapolis concerts will no doubt leave many warm memories for concert-goers here. My parents will hear a repeat performance tonight.

I am glad that Josh got to hear Brendel. Josh loved the Beethoven, more for the music than for the performance.

The conductor was Osmo Vanska. Vanska is not a good Beethoven conductor. Vanska’s Beethoven is romantic, not classical. He overdoes the rhetoric inherent in Beethoven, at the expense of proportion and classical line. He also emphasizes dynamics far too much, playing up pianissimos and fortissimos to such an extent that they call undue attention to themselves. Musical tension dissipates as listeners (and players) wait for Vanska’s next abrupt shift of dynamics. Ultimately, it all sounds rather vacant.

I have no argument against romantic Beethoven. In many ways, Otto Klemperer was a romantic Beethoven conductor, and yet Klemperer’s Beethoven was incomparable: strong, uncompromising, concentrated, expressive, dramatic, all-encompassing. In contrast, Vanska’s Beethoven is finicky, empty and full of posturing.

The second half of the program was devoted to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6.

The Sixth Symphony has an unusual structure. A very long Largo opens the symphony. The Largo is longer than the two movements that follow, combined (an Allegro and a Presto). Many commentators have noted, for decades, that either the first movement belongs in another symphony or the final two movements belong in another symphony.

I have never cared for this work. The musical argument is feeble and of no inherent interest whatsoever. The symphony only works when a conductor practically rewrites the score, inserting all sorts of extraneous expressive devices to make the work cohere into some sort of bitter, semi-comic tragedy.

Vanska did not know what to do with the symphony. In his hands it sounded vapid and empty, as it usually does. The result was a very long thirty minutes.

The concert opened with a performance of Webern’s early Passacaglia. Inspired by the final movement of Brahms’s final symphony, the Webern made no impact in last night’s performance. The different musical lines were not highlighted, as they must be in order for the work to “sound”. The orchestra produced a thick, dull, gray paste of sound. The result was a performance that sounded like sludge.

This weekend Joshua and I will help my parents begin to get the house and yard ready for Easter. We are looking forward to it.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Two Theater Outings

I returned from Dallas late Friday night.

Last week was a long week for me, and I was glad to be back home.

Joshua stayed with my parents while I was gone, so Josh had a much better week than I did.

Josh and I did not do much on Saturday. We ran errands, and took care of necessary things around the apartment.

Late Saturday afternoon, Josh and I and my parents went downtown to attend a performance of “My Fair Lady” at the Orpheum Theater. We had an early dinner downtown before the show.

The Orpheum Theater is one of three grand old theaters in downtown Minneapolis, all dating from the early 20th Century, which have been fully restored and which are now used for touring Broadway productions.

Last month we went downtown to attend a performance of “Sweeney Todd” at the State Theater, another of the grand old theaters in Minneapolis, and at the time I wrote about the history of the State Theater.

The history of the Orpheum Theater is virtually identical to that of the State Theater. It, too, opened in 1921, during the great post-World War I boom in the Upper Midwest. Like the State Theater, the Orpheum was built as a Vaudeville house, at the then-enormous cost of one million dollars. The Marx Brothers were part of the opening bill.

With the decline of Vaudeville, the Orpheum became a movie palace in 1927. It remained a movie palace until 1959, when it converted to a house for touring Broadway productions.

In 1988, the city bought the theater, and shortly thereafter a $10 million restoration began. The stage was substantially enlarged in order to accommodate the most elaborate of modern Broadway productions.

The most notable feature of the auditorium is a 15-foot, 2000-pound chandelier beneath the domed ceiling, itself lined with 30,000 leaves of silver. The restored theater seats 2600 patrons.

The Orpheum Theater is today’s Twin Cities venue for the most complicated touring productions. It reopened in 1994 with a production of “Miss Saigon”, and has since hosted the world premiere productions of the stage musicals “Victor/Victoria”, “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Lion King”.

This touring production of “My Fair Lady” originated in London in 2001. Produced by Cameron McIntosh, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, this production enjoyed a long and profitable run in the West End.

My middle brother and I almost attended a performance of this production in 2002, solely because the role of Professor Higgins was being played at the time by Anthony Andrews, but we elected to go see Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” that night instead. Our evening enduring “The Mousetrap” was one of the most gruesome nights of our lives.

The program booklet for this touring version of “My Fair Lady” contained a wealth of detail about the production.

Each performance involves a cast of 35 actors, an orchestra of 16 musicians and 25 stage technicians. Ten 45-foot trailers are required to move the production from one venue to the next, and 73 persons are needed to strike and remount the production

There are 425 books on the set of Professor Higgins’ study.

There are 300 separate lights in the lighting rig, with a combined 250,000 watts, and the lighting equipment cost over one million dollars. There are 171 lighting cues at each performance.

Over seven miles of electronic cable are used in the show.

The production uses 88 pieces of flying scenery. The scenery flown during each performance weighs over 5,000 pounds.

The floral arch set, in itself, requires eighteen different stage motors to strike or mount. The study set, in itself, requires twelve members of the stage crew, three fly operators and one automation operator to strike or mount.

The “marbles” used when Eliza learns to speak properly are actually chewable mints.

Cast members consume, onstage, eight bread rolls, 24 chocolates, 32 mints, four blocks of cheese, two ginger cakes, four jam tarts and four liters of Coca-Cola (which substitutes for brandy) at each performance.

There are 162 individual stage costumes in the production. Eliza’s ballroom dress has 5897 beads, each of which is hand-sewn. There are 195 costume changes at each performance. The largest hat in the show, worn during the Ascot scene, is one yard wide.

After each performance, there are six commercial loads of laundry to be washed, including 24 shirts that must be starched and ironed. Over five pounds of laundry detergent are consumed each day.

A total of 46 wigs are used in the production. Twenty are compiled from human hair, while twenty-six are made from synthetic materials. Eight fake mustaches and one fake beard are used in the production. The company goes through ten cans of hairspray each week—and 800 wipes to remove stage makeup.

This mind-numbing proliferation of detail in the program booklet was, alas, twice as interesting as the show itself. Whoever decided that this “My Fair Lady” needed to be inflicted on American audiences? It was God-awful.

The production was poorly-designed and looked cheap, no matter how many thousands of personnel were involved in its planning, construction and maintenance. The cast members appeared to be less interested in the proceedings than the audience, which was a genuine accomplishment of sorts, since the audience appeared to be bored out of its mind. I doubt I have ever seen a stage presentation of anything so ossified and stale, except perhaps my readiest frame of reference, that “Mousetrap” performance back in 2002.

Josh and my parents hated this “My Fair Lady” as much as I did. In fact, we discussed leaving at the intermission. We would have done so, except we wanted to hang around to see if the actor portraying Professor Higgins died onstage during the second act. He was three decades too old for the part, and surely he is prone to go soon.

This morning Josh and I had my parents over for breakfast before church. We gave my Dad a big breakfast because we knew we would have no time for lunch.

After church, we headed straight downtown again for a 1:00 p.m. matinee at the Guthrie Theater. We attended a performance of “Third”, Wendy Wasserstein’s final play.

The play was weak. Wasserstein mined the same thin vein, the world of the New York pseudo-intellectual, over and over, and Wasserstein was never a particularly talented writer to begin with. Her saving grace as a playwright was that, in addition to knowing her core constituency and taking it seriously, she also made relentless fun of that same group. The tension between admiring and deploring this jaded set is the only thing that makes a Wasserstein play watchable.

After the matinee, we returned to my parents’ house and helped my mother prepare an early dinner. We had whitefish, accompanied by a garden salad, plain pasta and steamed mixed vegetables. The dog was given his Sunday-night chicken. For dessert, we had raspberries and ice cream.

This will be a busy week at work again. The only item on our schedule is at week’s end, when we will go hear Alfred Brendel in his final Twin Cities appearance. Brendel is scheduled to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. Whether the performance be good, bad or indifferent, at least Josh will be able to say that he heard Brendel.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

On my final evening in Dallas, I attended a performance of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is easily America’s most beautiful concert hall. The building’s architect was I. M. Pei and it is, I believe, Pei’s only concert hall. It is a remarkably successful structure.

The exterior is very fine, with clean lines and lots of glass. It is beautiful at midday, in the hot Texas sun, and it is beautiful at night, illuminated within and without.

The auditorium itself is the building’s glory. Surely it is the most beautiful interior of a concert hall anywhere in the world, painstakingly designed and artfully decorated with a subtle and sublime mixture of woods, metals and fabrics. The color scheme is cool and elegant and understated, free of the plush red velvet and gilded surfaces that mar so many American concert halls.

The program was an odd one, combining British music and Italian music under a German conductor. It was also short. The first half was devoted to Britten’s 20-minute “Sinfonia Da Requiem”. The second half was devoted to Verdi’s 40-minute “Four Sacred Pieces”.

The conductor was Claus Peter Flor, who has worked regularly with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for many years. He has been Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra for the last several seasons, but that association ends at the conclusion of the current concert season.

In fact, this weekend’s concerts marked Flor’s final concerts with the Dallas Symphony. He is not scheduled to return in coming seasons, a situation that has caused some unhappiness among Dallas subscribers. Many Dallas subscribers believe that Flor should have been named the orchestra’s next Music Director.

Flor is a very fine conductor, especially in the Central European repertory. He does not conduct often in the United States and, when he does, it is generally in Dallas and Houston. Otherwise, his career is centered in Europe and Asia.

I would have preferred to have heard Flor conduct Mendelssohn and Martinu, not Britten and Verdi, because Flor had nothing special to bring to either of the works on the program. His readings were solid, not special. He was better in the Britten than in the Verdi.

I have always liked Britten’s “Sinfonia Da Requiem”. In fact, I think it is Britten’s finest work for full orchestra and his most successful piece of absolute music. In three movements, played without pause, the “Sinfonia” is a memorial to Britten’s own parents (the composition was actually commissioned by the Japanese government, a commission the Japanese government rejected after becoming aware of its overt Christian content). The work was premiered by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic in 1941.

The composition’s themes are unmemorable. The orchestration is colorless. The development of the materials is strikingly unimaginative. Nonetheless, the piece works, in large part because of its brevity and concision.

Britten’s music is very fashionable now, at least in English-speaking countries. Indeed, his music is more fashionable now than it ever was during the composer’s lifetime. This is because the American music establishment, from about 1980 onward, began to reject complexity and modernity in music in favor of accessibility. Britten, like Shostakovich, has been one of the primary beneficiaries of this current trend, and this trend is likely to continue for another decade or so before it inevitably reverses course.

Igor Stravinsky, Herbert Von Karajan and Pierre Boulez, among others, always described Britten’s music as fundamentally weak, decidedly uninteresting and unavoidably second-rate. Who cannot agree with that assessment? Britten’s music lacks passion and deep emotion and individuality. It is also—fatally—thin of content. It has an impersonal surface facility that sometimes pleases during a performance, but Britten’s music does not stick in the mind or the ear or the heart after a performance has concluded. By the time the applause has died down, the music has vanished in a puff of smoke.

Benjamin Britten was the mid-20th Century equivalent of Charles Villiers Stanford. Both composers wrote highly-skilled, polished and pleasing music, in a multitude of forms, but both composers wrote music that ultimately lacked depth or memorability. In essence, Britten’s music lacks true greatness. Like Stanford’s music, which has virtually disappeared, Britten’s music is destined to be dropped from the repertory.

Music lovers in English-speaking countries are often unaware how infrequently Britten’s music is performed or even known outside Great Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and how little resonance it carries on the European continent. In Europe, Britten is viewed, when he is viewed at all, as purely an opera composer, and it is “Billy Budd”, and not “Peter Grimes”, that is most often produced in European opera houses. Britten is virtually a one-work composer outside the English-speaking world, a modern-day Mascagni.

Often, when non-English conductors perform Britten’s music, it sounds like Shostakovich. In Dallas, Flor’s Britten did not sound like Shostakovich, which signifies that the performance was, largely, a success. The orchestral playing was clean, even elegant, but Flor displayed no deep mastery of this score. I was pleased to hear the work, but the finest account of “Sinfonia Da Requiem” I have heard remains Andre Previn’s EMI recording from the mid-1970’s, a performance superior even to the composer’s own.

Verdi’s “Four Sacred Pieces” is a compilation of four independent choral compositions written between 1888 and 1896, near the end of Verdi’s life. Although nothing binds the four separate works together, all four were published together in 1898. “Four Sacred Pieces” is seldom programmed, and I was happy to have an opportunity to hear the work in person, although I would have much preferred an Italian conductor on the podium.

I did not think the performance was successful. For one thing, the work is very hard to bring off. Each of the four pieces is discrete; there is no cumulative impact obtained by programming all four at once. Further, Flor had no special feel for the work. He is definitely not a Verdi conductor—there was no plasticity, no undercurrent of drama, no Italianate line or warmth, in his conducting. His conducting was entirely foursquare, failing to bring out whatever individuality lies in the score. The entire time I was listening, I was reminded how much Verdi’s work bears a distinct resemblance to the Mass In D of John Knowles Paine—and not necessarily to Paine’s disadvantage.

Moreover, Flor did something totally bizarre that veritably destroyed the performance: between movements, he inserted orchestral arrangements of Bach chorales—including, of all things, Stokowski’s arrangement of “Sheep May Safely Graze”! Given this perverse idea, it was hard for me to take the performance at all seriously.

The work of the Dallas Symphony Chorus was not strong. I suspect that the chorus was unrehearsed—Verdi’s “Requiem” will be programmed in Dallas in another couple of weeks, and the “Requiem” may be absorbing much of the available choral rehearsal time—but I also heard nothing in the chorus’s work to make me believe that this is one of America’s finer choral groups.

The women’s chorus became insanely out-of-tune in the a cappella movement. In fact, I thought it might become necessary to stop the performance and re-tune the singers midway through the movement.

The orchestra, however, was exceptional. The playing was at the highest possible level.

The Dallas Symphony is the great “unknown” American orchestra. It is better than the Minnesota Orchestra. It is better than the West Coast ensembles. It is better than the Saint Louis Symphony or the Atlanta Symphony or the Cincinnati Symphony, all of which are better-known quantities to most American music lovers. If the Dallas Symphony were to appear in New York more often, and if the Dallas Symphony were to cultivate the New York music establishment, its reputation for excellence would become much more widespread. However, the orchestra’s management has not been willing to make an investment in a New York presence, a longstanding orchestra policy that was a recurring source of deep friction between the Dallas board and a former music director.

The brass section of the Dallas Symphony is the orchestra’s strongest section. Dallas has perhaps the finest brass section of all American orchestras other than Chicago. Its brass section has a gleaming, even brilliant sound, and it never attempts to overpower the rest of the ensemble. The brass sound is beautifully blended, and beautifully blended with the rest of the orchestra. The trombone section may be the finest in the world.

The Dallas Symphony is one of the few American orchestras that has its own style. There is a coolness and an elegance and an urbanity and an understatement in its playing that is very attractive and unique in the U.S., a lasting legacy of the Eduardo Mata years (and a legacy that Andrew Litton was unable to destroy). I wish I could hear the orchestra more often.

The string section needs work. Its sound is not rich enough. When the string players are asked to provide maximum volume and intensity, the string sound loses its beauty and its transparency. It becomes glassy, almost strident, and yet it still sounds under-nourished, lacking a deep core to the sound.

No doubt one of the reasons Jaap Van Zweden has been engaged to be the next Music Director in Dallas is because of his expertise in developing string players. I think Van Zweden is an interesting—and perhaps an inspired—appointment, and I look forward to hearing this orchestra under his stewardship.

Perhaps, in coming years, Dallas will finally receive the acclaim that is its due.