The new season at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has begun, and this season I’m gifted beyond words to have tickets to an abnormally high number of performances. I think it’s twice what I had last year? It helps that I’m not trying to fund this by myself. In any case, this is going to be a spectacular season, and my first concert of the season begins with the man, the myth, the legend: Beethoven. Love me some Beethoven.
We always start our concerts with a visit to the gift shop. Love people working there, and some fun stuff. Thing is, there’s this life-sized bust of Beethoven that’s perched at eye level that stares out from the shop into the lobby, intimidating absolutely everyone. Be real here. If anyone can stare down the elites of a city, it’s Beethoven. Well, this time around, being October, the ladies in the gift shop decided to have a little fun. Even the maestro enjoys Halloween…
When I think about the Romantic Era that he inspired and helped to create, a little steampunk seems almost appropriate, don’t you think? And contrary to popular belief, the man did have a sense of humor, so he might even have approved of this. Anyway… let’s talk about the music now.
This was the lineup, straight from the DSO’s program magazine:
RUTH REINHARDT CONDUCTS
DAVID FRAY PIANO
HINDEMITH Concert Music for Strings and Brass
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3
BEETHOVEN King Stephen Overture
KODÁLY Háry János Suite
A little background before we begin. Ruth Reinhardt is one of the skyrocketing up-and-comers in world of conducting, already in high demand across the globe. Think back to when you first heard the name Gustavo Dudamel. It’s a lot like that. She’s young, she’s energetic, and she can coax a performance every bit as well. She spent the last couple of seasons as backup baton for Jaap Van Sweden, which means being able to drop in at a moment’s notice to take over, conducting a performance as he did in rehearsals. I’ve seen her do it, and she’s amazing. To have her in absolute control of the baton… wow. A conductor can make or break any performance or any orchestra. When Van Sweden departed for New York (and we wish him the best), we were lucky beyond words to keep Reinhardt a while longer. The DSO retains its position as one of top orchestras in the world because of conductors like her and the master musicians we have working with her. Her’s is going to be a career to watch.
Our first piece is one with which I was unfamiliar. Paul Hindemith is considered to be one of the four foundational modernist composers, alongside Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg. And he’s also considered to be the most neglected composer of the 20th century. The piece is polytonal, and it distinguished itself quite remarkably from the other composers I named. Hindemith definitely had his own style. My understanding is he also wrote concerti for every single instrument in the orchestra, which few composers can claim. I have to admit… I’m curious now.
Now we bring in the featured selection. To fully appreciate any of Beethoven’s piano concerti, it’s important to remember three points. First, Beethoven was a master at improvisation. He’d constantly win money doing this sort of thing, dancing circles on the piano around his competitors in his younger days. Second, he’d go into concerts performing the cadenzas (piano solos) himself, and the sheet music would often be blank, much to the consternation of his page turners (who were also musicians, now with no clue when to turn pages and make it look good). He’d memorize and adlib right on the spot, writing his music down only later when he considered his legacy might be worth saving. When he did write it down, it looked like this:
Yes, that’s the maestro’s own hand, the cadenza for the first movement of this very piece. Which brings us to point three: soloists are never obliged to perform the cadenza as written. Making up their own is perfectly accepted and normal as the cadenza is the bit where the soloist gets to show off. But… remember, this is Beethoven, and he’s one of the best pianists that ever lived.
Enter our soloist for the evening, David Fray, one of the best piano soloists of our current age. He performed Beethoven’s cadenza, “as written.” I don’t see how anyone makes heads nor tails out of that, but I assuming if they can translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, they can translate Beethoven. I’ve heard recordings of Fray, but I always expect a little extra showmanship in a live performance. Fray’s showmanship wasn’t showy. He put his talent into Beethoven’s score, and the result was what I can only describe as natural magic. It felt like it couldn’t have been performed any other way. Backed by the DSO, well, it’s hard to go wrong with Beethoven. It’s a different effect than one of his symphonies, but no less spellbinding. I truly wish we could have gotten Fray to do an encore before intermission, perhaps one of the sonatas, say for example the “Moonlight” (my personal favorite), but it wasn’t to be. In any case, remembering that the modern piano is so much more powerful than what Beethoven had to work with in his day, I marvel at how he pushed his music to consider what the future might bring. A standard keyboard in his day could not have played the cadenza he wrote. Not enough keys. Makes me wonder how he pulled it off in his own time.
After intermission, we got another Beethoven, the King Stephen Overture. And I kept reading it all night as the “Stephen King Overture.” I know better, but this is what happens when you read too many book blogs. You people are a bad influence on me! lol. The King Stephen Overture was a spritely piece, so not in a style Stephen King would recognize. It’s not one you hear performed often, even in recording, unless you’re just predisposed to spin the disc yourself. But again, any Beethoven is welcome in my book.
Zoltán Kodály is not a name I’m familiar with at all. Our final piece of the evening, the Háry János Suite, is a six movement piece, and it’s so much fun. It’s very much a folk-inspired piece, right down to the giant town square cuckoo clock.
Our percussionist Ronald Snider has been with the DSO since 1970, and he took center stage for this piece with an instrument called the cimbalom, an instrument descended from the Persian dulcimer (which I’m familiar with thanks to my visits to Scarborough Renaissance Festival). Before the show, he explained this instrument to us. It’s 140 steel strings, like a piano, with the lower ones meshed with copper. It’s played with cotton-wrapped mallets, which gives it a slightly different sound than a hammered piano string, especially when given music that plays to its ethnic roots. To breathe on it crooked is to knock it out of tune. He talked about this old joke about harpists where they spend half the time tuning their instruments and the other half playing out of tune. Apparently the cimbalom is far more temperamental than that. It’s an instrument that’s rarely heard outside its native Hungary, and he himself rarely plays it despite owning one, a side effect of all the other instruments he’s responsible for. It turns out, I’ve heard this instrument before without knowing it. I immediately recognized its sound from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Mummy.
All in all, it was a spectacular evening. I won’t have to wait long for my next performance. I have tickets for next weekend!