Another night at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The music was fantastic, but there were some extenuating circumstances that changed it for me.
This was the lineup:
DAVID ZINMAN CONDUCTS
JONATHAN BISS PIANO
COPLAND Appalachian Spring Suite
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2
ELGAR Enigma Variations
To start with, David Zinman was not actually conducting. He threw out his back and was down for the week. Thankfully, the DFW area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality cultural exchange. The DSO was able to get Miguel Harth-Bedoya, longtime conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, who not only could do the job, but was familiar with the demands of the pieces. That’s pretty incredible, once you start to understand what that entails. Big thanks to him for stepping in at the last minute, and without a change to the program.
I was more than excited to hear Jonathan Biss on the Beethoven concerto. Five years ago, I was treated to a book he wrote on Beethoven, one that really helped me to bridge some gaps in understanding between what the professional hears and what most of us hear as untrained audience. Since that time, I’ve heard a number of his performances via recordings, so I knew going into this that I was going to hear something special.
What I did not expect was that my sensory overload would cripple my ability to fully enjoy the night.
Our seats this time were in the grand tier. Basically what that means is we were in a side box at the very top of the auditorium, well above the level of where the organist sits. Vertigo is a problem for me, combined with an overactive imagination that will have me envisioning all manner of disasters from crumbling boxes to simply being launched into open air into the crowd below. It sounds stupid, but it’s disorienting and terrifying beyond reason. In the future, if we have seats up there, we’re going to attempt to exchange them at the box office for floor seats or anything closer to the ground we can get. But… I didn’t think about that even being an option until the concert was over, and so I’m still dealing with the aftermath as I write this. My own fault.
From this vantage, the sound is amazing, but my view of the stage is highly limited to only the bass strings as I sit back away from the railing and lean backwards to appease my equilibrium. And then I close my eyes on account, so even that doesn’t matter. That’s how I sat for Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Going into this, I’m familiar with all three pieces to be performed. Copland is credited as creating the sound of American classical, and his backstory is pretty freaking incredible. He quite literally wrote the book on how to listen to music. His Fanfare for the Common Man was at one time the most famous piece of instrumental music ever written… until supplanted by the theme for Star Trek. That statement was made before I was born, so I’m totally unbiased on this front. For me, Copland’s importance is personal. To learn more of anything, you find what you like, and then you learn what influenced that, and so on. Copland is the direct influence of John Williams. You can hear it as easily as you can hear Haydn and Mozart in early Beethoven.
And that brings us to the Beethoven concerto. This is a fascinating listen if you know the history. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about how Beethoven wrote the cadenzas to his concerti years after the fact, having memorized them so that no one else could play them. What we’re hearing here is the orchestra part that was written down and copied literally days before the performance with cadenzas that were published (and probably changed and tweaked in that time) some 15 years later. In other words, early Haydn-inspired Beethoven as he’s first making his voice heard combined with the darker, moodier, even more assertive Beethoven at an even higher level of his game — in the same piece.
For this piece, I discovered that in keeping my chair back where I was, but leaning forward just enough to see over the railing, I had a perfect top-down view of Biss running his hands over that piano keyboard, and I was fixated. That fascination, combined with my admiration of Beethoven, was the only way I could get through this experience. I’m still paying for that, but it was totally worth it. Biss has this incredibly light touch that allows him to play Beethoven at proper speed, something modern orchestras are only now understanding in recent years. For most of history since publication, many thought Beethoven’s time signatures were wrong because surely no one could be expected to play the piece as written. No… Beethoven was just that good, and he expected anyone who played his music to be so too. Biss not only made it look effortless, he absolutely reveled in it. It translated to the music itself, transcending in a way that I think Beethoven himself would smile upon.
And then it was over, we had intermission, at which point the vertigo came rushing back in, and I contemplated watching the final piece from the lobby, where patrons who have to leave can watch on a screen. I didn’t do that, however. No… I’m a sucker for punishment. So when the house lights came up, I leaned back in my chair, consumed by dizziness, sensory overload, and that wonderful feeling of the back of your skull trying to compress into your brain that only vertigo can bring. Again, totally worth the experience, but I’d not care to repeat it from such a height.
Edward Elgar is the musical voice of Britain’s 20th century Renaissance. His Enigma Variations is the piece that put him on the map. The story behind it as actually really cute. He came up with this theme, and his wife (whom he loved so dearly) was all, “I like that, play it again.” And so he did. And then he started playing it as his friends might play it, incorporating a blustery attitude here or a flighty laugh there, and one variation even features Dan the bulldog. It really is endearing. The “Nimrod” variation is probably the part that most would know best. This part gave us the organ for a little extra oomph, which I normally love, but in my vertigo-induced state, I freely admit I was in heaven and hell at the same time. And I thought gender dysphoria sucked! But… I wouldn’t trade the experience of the music. My ears are so attuned so sound that, while seemingly every little thing can mess me up physically, music of this nature can still power through to my soul.
Upon exiting, I was very thankful that I wasn’t driving home. In addition to the vertigo, we had a gully washer of a storm that made the drive quite interesting, doubly so because drivers in this city tend to freak out and either speed through at top velocity or crawl to a stop. And then flash flooding made it even more fun. I sat back with my eyes closed, with the sound of rain, splashes, passing cars, thunder, and the motion of vehicle. By the time I got home, I was thankful I could find the front door to unlock it. The lock kept moving in front of me while trying to turn the key. Nauseous and now fighting an impending migraine, I finally made it safely to my bed, and after about an hour it finally stopped moving enough for me to pass out.
This morning, I’m still recovering. My plan is to sit as perfectly still as I can for as long as I can, with my eyes focused on a single fixed point wherever possible. This is temporary. The memory of Jonathan Biss playing Beethoven… that will last a lifetime.