The last couple of weekends, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in back-to-back performances. My intention was to blog about each experience separately as I’ve done in the past, but these last two have challenged me in different ways, so I’ve had to sit and think about what it is I’ve heard. Late blog means you get it all at once.
The first program was a triple play:
Gustavo Gimeno – conducts
Jörgen van Rijen – trombone
Prokofiev – Symphony No. 1, Op. 25, “Classical Symphony”
I. Allegro con brio
III. Gavotte: Non troppo allegro
IV. Finale: Molto vivace
James MacMillan – Trombone Concerto (U.S. Premiere)
Jörgen van Rijen – trombone
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”
I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
II. Allegro con grazia
III. Allegro molto vivace
IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso
Prokofiev is no stranger to my playlist, but this piece legitimately took me by surprise. I’d never heard it before. His first symphony is essentially a throwback concept, working under the idea of “what would it sound like if Haydn had written symphonies in his own style, but using the ideas far more modern?” The result was short and sweet, a little ear candy. Nothing with staying power, certainly, but fun. Using this piece to set the tone for the evening, however, I think may have been a mistake. Or not. It really depends on how you look at it. It stood in great contrast with the piece that followed.
MacMillan’s trombone concerto has no professional recordings of it at the time of this writing. It debuted across Europe only recently, and our performance was the U.S. premiere. The backstory is that composers do their work while saturated in the events of whatever life throws at them. This piece was written in the midst of tragedy, the loss of the composer’s five-year-old granddaughter. The struggle of emotion is apparent throughout. I’m glad I got this backstory because the first thing about this piece I heard was that people were walking out in the middle of it the night before. That’s not necessarily a sign that it’s a bad piece, just that it’s either hard to take for emotional reasons or it’s so ultra-modern and dissonant that people can’t wrap their heads around what they’re hearing.
This piece is the reason I had to sit and think about how to blog about these performances. You see, this piece is half an hour of unrelenting technical bombast. A trombone concerto is a rare beast, if you think about it, and I was pretty thrilled to see something like that. The soloist was amazing! I have nothing but praise for the technical triumph it took to play this work all around. But at the same time, there were some non-conventional “instruments” that I could have done without… such as a siren. No, really. A freaking siren. I never want to hear a siren in a concert hall ever again. Not only is it a grating sound on purpose, but my sensory processing disorder can’t take it. I live in a poor neighborhood near a firehouse. The sounds of sirens from police, fire, and ambulance are commonplace enough for me. I come to the symphony to free myself of such turmoil, not to embrace it. Don’t get me wrong, I get the composer’s usage of it. I just simply don’t like audio-induced pain. On the composition level, I didn’t feel like this piece brought anything new to the playing field. Much of what I heard from the symphony’s accompaniment sounded more like a modern generic horror movie score with brief respites of confusion and ultimately acceptance. The last 90 seconds of the piece were a release from all of it (for which I was grateful, but it wasn’t nearly enough). As an emotional story, the piece absolutely worked. It was simply the wrong way to rub my nerves raw. I can’t blame the composer for my own autistic-scaled nightmares. About a third of the audience walked out, and of those, only half returned after intermission. For those who stayed, there was a great deal of excited chatter, so it’s a pretty divisive piece.
Tchaikovsky… this was the centerpiece for the evening. I love Tchaikovsky. To date, the only piece of his I’d heard live before this was his Piano Concerto No. 1, masterfully played at this same hall. Most people are divided in what they love better. For some, it’s all about the symphony, for others, the concerto is king. When it comes to Tchaikovsky, my preference is his ballet work. Swan Lake is the gold standard for me, with all due regard for Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. But I’ve not heard a piece from him I haven’t enjoyed. Some composers have that effect on me. This Symphony No. 6 is largely considered to be his best work, made somewhat spooky by the idea that it’s a somber piece first performed mere days before his death. The general consensus is that this is somehow the composer’s suicide note writ large, though historians and musicologists will disagree given that he was actually having an upswing in his life at that point. Suffice it to say, it’s heavy stuff, and coming off that half-hour trombone concerto, it weighed something fierce.
And after it was over, all the chatter as we left the building was back on the trombone concerto. Say what you will, it got people talking.
That was a week ago. This past weekend, I returned to the DSO for a single-piece performance, by a composer I’ve never heard live before. There are certain names in the repertoire that, when you hear them, you instantly know that a world class symphony with a world class conductor is needed to pull this off. Thank the Force for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, because the program for this one was Gustav Mahler. When it comes to bringing your A-game, there are few composers who will push that to this kind of level.
Jaap van Zweden – conducts
Dorothea Röschmann – Soprano
Michelle DeYoung – Mezzo-Soprano
Dallas Symphony Chorus: Joshua Habermann – director
Mahler – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”
To put this into perspective, this is the setup for this performance:
Really look at this. A full orchestra with two harps and a maximum number of pretty much everything else. A full chorus. Two vocal soloists (not pictured as they didn’t arrive until the second movement, and the orchestra is still taking their seats here). The pipe organ. Mahler quite literally threw everything and the kitchen sink into this piece. What never ceases to astound me is that the DSO is capable of bringing out every subtle nuance and every sonic pummeling, with all points in between to rapturous perfection. I’ve seen this sort of thing at the DSO only twice before, where composition and orchestra were pushed to the very ends of belief itself: Beethoven’s 9th and Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome,” the latter of which I still contend is the very best symphonic concert performance I’ve attended.
Mahler didn’t make me change my mind about that, but he came really freaking close, a mere hair’s breadth away. I welcome him into that personalized pantheon of experience that will forever redefine my perceptions of what greatness truly means.
I don’t pretend to know too much about Mahler at this stage in the game. As with anything, I’m still learning, and there are subjects I feel like I absolutely should know better than I do. This is one of them. You see, there’s a progression at work here that plays right into my sensibilities. Beethoven changed music forever. What he brought to the symphony, Wagner pushed forward in his Operas, changing that landscape forever. Mahler explored the concepts that Wagner unleashed and brought them back to Beethoven in an impossibly big way that arguably no one has achieved since. This is real “meaning of life” kind of stuff. In this particular case, Mahler is reimagining Beethoven’s 9th as a more existential investigation. Think about what I just said, and then think about the sorts of things I’ve said on this blog in the past. My absolute passion and respect for Beethoven means that anyone who comes along on his coattails and reimagines his work is going to be second best, and is therefore an absolute waste of my time. You might as well tell me someone is trying to rewrite The Lord of the Rings. Understandably, I’d scoff in disgust under normal circumstances, dismissing the entire notion as a lazy, half-assed money grab. I see it in pop culture all the time, everyone regurgitating everyone else’s far better work, with nothing new to say, and no skill in which to say it. Why would I want something like this trampling all over Beethoven? Was the disco version of his 5th not bad enough? I mean, I was embarrassed on his behalf that some monkey thought that was appropriate to fling into the world in the first place.
Except Mahler is different. He is quite literally — and I don’t say this lightly — the second coming of Beethoven. He has a great many things to say that might even give Beethoven himself pause. I’ve heard such things said of him before, but I don’t think I’ve ever understood what that really meant until this performance. It’s like I’ve heard Mahler here and there over the years in excerpts, often without even knowing what I was hearing, but this is the first time I truly listened to both piece and composer. I wish I could go through the ins and outs of what makes this work great, but this is a case where an entire book could be written on it… and I’m going to find that book, I assure you, just as I did with Beethoven. We attend performance preludes in the basement of the hall before the show, where a local music professor will break down the piece and explain it, and this time we were told up front that it would be rushed and crammed in an effort to get as much into that lecture as possible. Carrying that information into the performance laid some groundwork, but I was unprepared for the sheer enormity of it all.
This, my friends, is the kind of experience I live for, musical or otherwise. I want so much more like this, and I want it to never become so commonplace that it feels familiar or blasé. Listening to an earlier DSO recording of it yesterday with previous music director Andrew Litton at the baton (because the symphony’s gift shop sees as much action for me as their ticket booth), I can honestly say that there’s very little lost in translation if you have high quality speakers (which I do). It makes me appreciate the differences between live and recorded and between the different styles of the conductors. But in both cases, the effect is there. The spiritual quest that Mahler embarks upon is just overwhelming to me in all the right ways. It’s like I understand what he’s asking, why he’s asking it, and from which perspectives he’s coming to ask in the manner he’s doing so. Understanding this to be a sequel of sorts to his 1st symphony, I went back and listened to the two works back to back, and greater understanding and appreciation unfolded. It makes me sad to consider that I’ve gone all this time without Mahler in my regular rotation of greats. Thankfully I can correct that gross oversight. I’m appreciative beyond words to the DSO for a mind-blowing performance that will last a lifetime.
A blog seems so inadequate at times like these. I really just want to share the experience with all of you directly.