Last night I travelled back in time, musically, to the Romantic Era. Of all the eras of classical music, I think this is my favorite. Before this era, the time of Haydn and Mozart gave us the Age of Classicism from whence classical music as a whole derives its name. There was a mental order to things that, while beautiful, missed something vital in my humble opinion. And then Beethoven happened, changing music forever. Anyone who denies the so-called “great man theory of history” has never experienced Beethoven. In his wake, the 19th century flourished with a sense of emotional understanding and transcendence. The composer was no longer shackled to service the rich and powerful, who could not or would not appreciate the depths of the art. You can see the transition from the Middle Ages. First the music is rendered in service to God, then the music is rendered in service to a mortal master of a higher social class, and now the composer serves as his own master. Much of this music is autobiographical in nature as a result. Often there is a sense of the heroic, or themes surrounding matters of the heart. There is also an awareness and reverence of the larger world, both the natural and the supernatural, and in each aspect, both the light and the dark. In short, the Romantic Era demonstrated an elevated appreciation for human nature and everything that surrounded it, regardless of whether or not it could be fully explained.
The program for the evening was a stunning cross-section of all of this, barely contained in three pieces, masterfully performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
The Accursed Huntsman (Le chasseur maudit)
Symphony No. 8
César Franck’s “The Accursed Huntsman” was an astounding showpiece, quite possibly the strongest entry of the evening for me. Based on conversation I heard after the show, this seems to be the general consensus. This era was prominently known for its tone poems, and this one really should be in the regular rotation for any orchestra. It tells the story of a huntsman who, in his hubris, decides to hunt on a Sunday morning, heedless of the warnings. His decision calls forth the demons of hell itself to chase him eternally, the hunter of the natural world becoming the prey of the supernatural one. It’s one of those pieces that would really stand as a compliment to something like “A Night on Bald Mountain,” where the music provides a soundtrack for your imagination to interpret.
Concerti of this era were usually written as the means by which virtuosi proved themselves to be the best of the best to any and all who would be awed by them. Robert Schumann, however, understood that he couldn’t write to that particular idea, so instead he wrote to what he understood: his love for his wife, Clara, who centered his bipolar nature. Clara was a celebrated piano virtuoso in her own right. With an understanding of to whom the piece was written and likely first performed it, guest pianist Ingrid Fliter took center stage and gave a nuanced rendition that called forth every expression Schumann channeled into it. I think modern audiences, especially the younger ones, are unaccustomed to the idea of a pieces this long, because I noticed there were a number of them that nodded off. You could hear their programs hit the floor. But this separation of understanding by no means reflects on Ms. Fliter or the DSO. It more directly reflects on pop culture’s standard limitation of 3-6 minute repetitive songs. I can’t say I don’t understand. I was there once too. But as with anything, repeated exposure to forms and ideas helps one to understand and appreciate. And that brings us back to Schumann’s concerto. Maybe Franz Liszt wasn’t impressed by it, referring to it as “a concerto without piano,” but I certainly was. So too was the house as a whole.
Guest conductor Pinchas Steinberg proved to be quite the powerhouse at the podium. Indeed, he was completely unrestrained by the music. By that, I mean… he sang along to it, even in the quiet moments when the music demanded a breath of silence from orchestra and audience alike. I had to do a doubletake when I realized it was happening. I was unaware of it in the first two pieces, but starting in the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s 8th, that’s when I noticed, and after that I couldn’t un-notice it. At first it was cartoonishly funny, and then it became more than a little distracting. But I’m forced to wonder if he was even aware of it. Suffice it to say, as beautifully performed as Dvořák’s symphony was, there was a considerable amount of distraction. It was an interesting contrast from last week, where the center of disturbance moved from audience to conductor. Who could have anticipated that one? Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. There were standing ovations for all three pieces, which in some ways helped to heal the ignorance from the audience last week. Clearly this audience was largely comprised of the regular attendees who get both the flow of things and the level of skill the DSO brings to the table.
The next performance I’ll get to attend will be the Sunday afternoon following Thanksgiving, with the DSO treating us to selections from Verdi and Puccini. Puccini gave me my foothold into Opera with “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, and my understanding that will be on the program. It’s perhaps understatement to say I’m looking forward to it.