DSO – Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is one of my absolute favorite pieces of music.  It’s not the featured piece for the evening, but it’s one that pulls me back into my childhood every single time.  This is where I find the roots of my love for classical music.  You see, I know this piece best as the first part of the two-part grand finale (with Schubert’s Ave Maria) in Disney’s Fantasia.  Even though I’ve heard the Dallas Symphony Orchestra play it before, just a couple of years ago, that’s really no reason to miss out.  If anything, that’s a great start to a magnificent evening.  Here’s the lineup for last night’s performance:

GIANCARLO GUERRERO CONDUCTS
LEONIDAS KAVAKOS VIOLIN
MUSSORGSKY Night on Bald Mountain
SHOSTAKOVICH Violin Concerto No. 1
MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition

Maestro Guerrero came and talked with us in a prelude to the concert, and the energy that I’ve seen from him on stage previously most definitely translates into the man.  He’s a living embodiment of how far passion and a sense of humor can take a person.  If I remember correctly, he said he was born in Nicaragua, raised in Costa Rica, and studied music in Waco at Baylor.  The first actual symphony he ever saw was the DSO.  His beginnings in classical music?  Cartoons.  He was raised on Bugs Bunny, and he loves Disney’s Fantasia.  It hit home.  I was raised in the sticks outside of Waco, and I was most definitely marinated in cartoons.  Hearing him talk, I felt the hollow pangs of my road not traveled.  In another life, I’d have pursued a career in music.  It was my first calling, and I should never have taken that left turn at Albuquerque, I mean, visual art.  Although… it is difficult to argue the enrichment it’s brought me to pursue my own meandering path through the combined forest of music, art, and literature.  These expressions are very much intertwined, a point that really comes into focus just in these two Mussorgsky pieces.

Guerrero’s insights into the pieces performed were nothing short of magnificent.  I’m not certain I can even scratch the surface.  He talked about the original piano compositions, the many orchestral arrangements after Mussorgsky’s death, the “Russian five” (and how only one of them was an actual musician), the individual themes within both of the Mussorgsky pieces and how they’re characterized, the actual artwork of the Pictures… I could have listened to him all day.  It was a master class, packed into too few minutes.

The Shostakovich violin concerto was discussed in context regarding the Soviet postwar machine and its mandates towards what was deemed acceptable music, reflective of the state.  This piece wasn’t it.  Then again, to hear it told, perhaps maybe four or five of Shostakovich’s pieces were deemed acceptable.  He was branded a “formalist,” which seems counter to the definition they gave it.  To be a formalist was bad.  It meant he was expressing a modern style, in a unique way, so as to create a sense of individualism in creativity.  You know, everything the arts aspire to elevate.  I have a great deal of respect for Shostakovich, toeing the line as he did, living in that kind of fear, and still somehow finding the will to create as he did.  I find his work to be difficult, however.  I struggle with much of it, but as with Stravinsky and others in similar vein, the more I approach it with an open mind and an open heart, the more I’m able to appreciate what I hear.  I do better with the tone poems, I think.

Shostakovich’s Piano Concert No. 2 is featured in Disney’s Fantasia 2000, and I was able to pick out similarities and variations within this Violin Concerto No. 1 as I listened.  Thanks to a little direction, I was able to pick out Shostakovich’s four-note musical monogram, an idea I’d never noticed before.  It’s sort of the musical equivalent to Al Hirschfeld hiding the name “Nina” within his line art.

The concert itself was nothing less than impressive.  Between Guerrero and our amazing DSO, how could it be otherwise?

Of course, these things don’t go off completely without a hitch.  I had to deal with a sideshow.  Diagonally in the seat in front of me was a little girl who insisted on playing with her toy, crunching her candies from an irritably loud crinkly plastic bag, and squeaking her shoes and her seat every chance she got… if she wasn’t stomping through the aisle.  She took direction to stop rather well, but she found new and creative ways to be obnoxious at every turn because she was clearly bored out of her skull.  Her mother finally took her outside during the Shostakovich, but only because she herself was coughing up a storm.  Suffice to say, I was largely distracted and had to practice my anger management skills because there was literally an usher standing three feet from them the entire time who did nothing.  I suppose when compared to how it could have gone down, she was incredibly well behaved, but these tickets are expensive for me, and I don’t do well with kids.  Never have.  Or obnoxious audience members of any age, really.  When they returned for Pictures after intermission, the solution in hand was the girl sat in mom’s lap for the bulk of the performance.  Thank the Force for small favors.

I have to say… those meditation skills are really paying off.

In any case, I was able to fully enjoy the two Mussorgsky pieces and still got quite a bit out of the Shostakovich in spite of the distraction, so I’m calling it a win.  I learned a great deal, I have new means to appreciate these pieces, and my towering respect for the DSO seems to have no upper limits.

One other point worth mentioning…  The DSO now has a phone app that made its functional debut in this performance.  It uses as system called LiveNote.  Basically, how it works is there are slides pushed through your phone during a performance.  It’s light text on black background, with personal adjustments for font and brightness, designed for minimum distraction of the audience around you. The slides are there to view pretty much any time, allowing the viewer to learn about the pieces.  During the performance, the slides or other information is pushed through by someone running the controls.  I didn’t use it myself because the slides only pertained to Pictures, and I’m intimately familiar with it already (combined with extra insight from our conductor).  I’m told something didn’t quite line up, but it’s unknown if that’s operator error (controller or end user), or simply that there’s not much connection to be had inside the performance hall (which I rather applaud anyway, seeing as how phones really are a distraction that only seems to get worse).  This isn’t a service I’ll ever use during the performance just on account.  I get far too much from watching the musicians and the conductor.  But before and after… I like the idea as a learning supplement.

No concert for me next week.  Two in a row already, so I’m clearly a bit spoiled, but I’ll be out of town.  The week after that… I’m already looking forward to the next performance.

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