The Classical Note: Wagner, van Zweden, and Musical Decadence at the Dallas Symphony

Our era takes a certain perverse pride in its decadence. Last weekend’s all-Wagner concerts by the Dallas Symphony at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with music director Jaap van Zweden conducting reminded that earlier times could match our own, note-for-note, in violating the boundaries of polite behavior and pre-conceived notions.

A sample of Wagnerian overtures—those of Acts I and III of Lohengrin and the Prelude to Die Meistersinger—provided the first half of the concert, warming up the grandly expanded orchestra as well as the audience for the main item on the agenda, Act I of Die Walküre. Although that particular opera is the second work in Wagner’s mammoth four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, this excerpt of an excerpt, as conductor van Zweden aptly pointed out in the program note, stands on its own quite securely. While presenting operas as concerts is a risky business, this event came across beautifully. Unburdened from the always problematic costumes and scenery Wagner’s scores demand, the music and ideas emerged compellingly.

One might conjecture that the immense popularity of Wagner in English-speaking countries early in the twentieth century may have been partly because audiences, without the benefit of captions or supertitles, simply didn’t know what the operas were about. Incest, chauvinism, and frankly bizarre concepts of honor abound; but, more than any great creative spirit, Wagner managed to transform his dysfunctional personality traits into great art. The three singers (soprano Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, tenor Clifton Forbis as Siegmund and bass Eric Owens as Hunding) introduced just the right touch of subtle dramatic interaction while navigating Wagner’s demanding vocal writing magnificently. Van Zweden contributed a well-honed sense momentum. In the end, that final mouth-on-mouth brother-sister kiss was at once shocking and triumphal—a moment of realization, recognition, and inherent doom.

Thirty miles away, the Fort Worth Symphony closed its hundredth-anniversary classical season with twin blockbusters, pairing the premiere of Peruvian composer Jimmy López’s Perú Negro with Carl Orff’s perennial audience favorite Carmina Burana.

López’s five-section fantasy on folksongs drawn from the slave-descended African Peruvian community featured a barrage of percussion instrucments including donkey’s jawbone, wooden boxes, and thunder sheets, and proved to be a melodic, noisy, and colorful orchestral showpiece in the tradition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, well worthy of a spot in the orchestral repertoire.

Carmina Burana of course holds a secure position as a season-closer for American orchestra. Folks who won’t darken the door of a concert hall any other time will show up for Carmina Burana (reflected in the record-breaking ticket sales for the weekend for the orchestra). It’s a very easy piece to criticize, with its simplistic strophic structures, reliably thumping rhythms, and sometimes remarkably ungrateful writing for the solo voices. Still, its distillation of subtle and not-so-subtle eroticism and acceptance of human fate is understandably compelling to audiences. In the Saturday night performance I attended at Bass Performance Hall, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya seemed torn between a somewhat refined approach to the primitivisms of the score and cutting loose with the primal drive of the piece. Although baritone Philip Cutlip was having an off-night vocally, the bits of stage-craft he and countertenor Michael Maniaci introduced in Part II was appropriate and delightful. Soprano soloist Cyndia Sieden emerged as the star of the evening, clad in a rustling red skirt (beautifully apropos to the aria “Stetit Puella,” ) and delivering her role with breathtaking emotional insight and vocal clarity.

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