Sunday, March 02, 2008

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.


  1. Are you making this up? Flor actually inserted Bach works between the movements of the Verdi? I really find that hard to believe.

    Flor appeared quite often in London in the late 80s/early 90s. Then he disappeared from view. The emergence of Thielemann affected his career, I think. It pushed Flor down on the scale.

    The same thing happened here when Rattle emerged. He pushed Andrew Davis off the map.

    It's always one's own countryman a conductor must fear.

    Sheep may safely graze, but not conductors.


  2. No, Calvin, I am not making this up. Modern orchestrations of Bach chorales were inserted between movements of the Verdi.

    When I got home and told my parents about this, their jaws began dropping.

    No one present in the hall seemed to mind, from what I could tell. However, no one present in the hall seemed to be particularly interested in or moved by the Verdi performance, either.

    I cannot say I am surprised.

  3. I haven't heard Dallas in years. It's been so long, all I can remember is that Mata was still the conductor. That means it was probably 15 years ago. I remember the orchestra being very suave. I also remember the string section lacking richness.