The Classical Note: A Dallas Symphony Concert Reveals the Function of the Symphony in Modern Culture

Besides bringing the fall classical subscription season of the Dallas Symphony to a close, last weekend’s magnificent production of Britten’s War Requiem of 1962 at the Meyerson Symphony Center underlined the function of the symphony orchestra—and, indeed, of great music—in modern urban culture.

That we have just experienced the climax of a political campaign that was costly beyond all reasonable standards and emotionally bruising to the entire electorate made the presentation of this masterpiece of twentieth-century culture all the more meaningful.  While the issues raised most frequently in the campaign—civil rights, government expenditures, tax equity, the healthcare system—are undoubtedly significant, those issues pale in comparison to the questions raised in the War Requiem (and virtually unmentioned in the campaign): precisely, the disturbing human tendency toward self-destruction through violence and, by implication, the ongoing suicide of the human species via short-sighted environmental exploitation.

That the War Requiem succeeds masterfully as a wake-up call for humanity goes without saying; the work is also unique in that it demands that the conductor totally subsume his own ego, and allow himself (or herself, as the case may be) to become a vessel of the composer’s intent. Ideally, the listener should forget about the existence of the conductor in a performance of the War Requiem. Music director Jaap van Zweden (along with Paul Phillips as conductor of the chamber orchestra in this multi-ensemble work) constantly engaged the wonderful complexity of the score and the interaction of the forces onstage, including children’s choir, full symphonic chorus, full symphony, chamber orchestra, vocal soloists, and organ.

All three vocal soloists –soprano Olga Guryakova, tenor Ian Bostridge, and baritone Dietrich Henschel—were remarkable in their delivery of this amazing text, which combines the Latin Mass for the Dead with the tragically prescient World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just weeks before the end of that war. But the individual performance that will haunt this listener for years was that of tenor Bostridge, who communicated a sense of shocked discovery of the horror of war, and who insisted that the audience share his horror.

In the short haul, the concert marked a triumph for an orchestra and a music director faced with a shortened season brought on by financial restructuring. For the longer haul, it presented the Dallas audience with a vision not so much of hope, but of truth—revealed by music.


New music alert: the newly-formed Dallas Chamber Symphony and conductor Richard McKay will perform an all-contemporary, all-American concert on Tuesday night at the City Performance Hall in the Arts District, including John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, Michael Torke’s Adjustable Wrench, and the premiere of Austin-based Brian Satterwhite’s score for the silent film A Sailor-Made Man, to be performed live with a screening of that comedy classic from 1921.

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Bass Performance Hall, the Fort Worth Symphony and guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech will perform John B Hedges’ Slapdance, along with works of Schumann and Rimsky-Korsakov, continuing that orchestra’s admirable custom of presenting a work by a living American composer on most classical subscription concerts.


  • Rihards Buks

    So sad I missed this event with so marvelous conducting!

    Hope will be there for new music there program.