Three Concerts Raise Same Question: Do Add-on Sounds or Images Enhance or Hinder Classical Music?

While commemoration of fiftieth anniversary of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy dominated Dallas cultural life—including classical concerts—last week, a more subtle issue concerning classical music and its function in our lives rose to the surface. Ultimately, the question concerns the extent to which that vaguely defined body of experience we call “classical music” can and should be welded to ideas beyond the music itself—and if so, how.

Tuesday night, the concert of the Dallas Chamber Symphony at Dallas City Performance Hall raised the question in a large way when, after presentation of well-known and beloved works by Britten and J.S. Bach, the orchestra and conductor Richard McKay served as silent film accompanists, performing new music in conjunction with screenings of Harold Lloyd’s Ask Father (1919), Charlie Chaplin’s By the Sea (1915), and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow (1920).

Here, the function of the orchestra and its relation to the nonmusical content was exemplary. These films were intended for presentation with live music, and live music was an inherent part of early film presentations in the theaters of the second and third decades of the twentieth century. The creators of the films did not, however, have specific music in mind; the creation of new music in 2013, giving a contemporary sheen to these historical documents, is therefore an inherently legitimate, and, indeed, admirable practice. That the three scores at hand (by Alain Mayrand, Penka Kouneva, and Brian Satterwhite) were each skillfully wrought and perfect for the situation also added to the experience. The presentation of classic silent film in conjunction with new live music continues to be the most outstanding contribution of this new ensemble on the local scene.

Later in the week at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the Dallas Symphony and conductor Jaap van Zweden raised a parallel issue with the premier performances, on four consecutive days, of Conrad Tao’s The world is very different now. In this work, specifically commemorating the Kennedy assassination, the live orchestral performance shares the stage with documentary film clips from the day of the assassination. The reliance on film footage in conjunction with a new orchestral work was a somewhat more dicey situation than accompanying a silent film intended for presentation with live music. Tao’s music itself was rife with beautiful ideas (Tao is a pianist-composer who at the age of 19 is successfully reviving the tradition of the virtuoso composer). The introduction of film footage, immensely entertaining and sometimes goose-bump-raising as it was, danced dangerously close to the cliff of emotional manipulation. This is an area worthy of continued exploration, but it’s a risky region to enter.

The least successful of the week’s attempts in this direction arrived with the presentation of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time as part of a concert on the Soundings New Music Series on Saturday night at Dallas City Performance Hall. This masterpiece of modernism stands so sturdily and insistently on its own that the interjection of recorded sounds and recorded spoken texts from Kennedy and recorded noise from the day of his burial—well-intentioned as it was—came across as an uncomfortable intrusion into the musical experience. One might compare the event to cutting a great painting into strips and placing contemporary, essentially unrelated photographs in between the strip. This might work in other circumstances, but the Messiaen Quartet, already loaded with philosophical images, and deliberately fragmented into eight sections, suffered from this latter day interpolation.

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The Dallas Symphony’s afore-mentioned concert included, along with the new work by Tao, Beethoven’s Third Symphony (a natural choice for a Kennedy commemoration concert, with its profound funeral march and vision of human nobility); the brief and anguished (and largely forgotten) Murder of a Great Chief of State, written by French composer Darius Milhaud in immediate reaction to the assassination in 1963; and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, with soloist Joshua Bell. The combination of the iconic, the unfamiliar, and the brand new made for an intellectually appealing and emotionally meaningful program of the sort the Dallas Symphony should produce more frequently. And, in an era in which we almost expect superstars to dutifully plow through masterpieces, Bell gave an impassioned and technically awe-inspiring rendition of the Sibelius.

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The presentation by the Brentano Quartet of a new string quartet, One Red Rose, by Steven Mackey, provided the highlight of the Soundings concert Saturday night, following the Messiaen and a production of Cage’s always fascinating 3’44”.  Previously performed only twice (at Carnegie Hall and at the Yellow Barn Festival in Vermont), the work was structurally inventive and convincing, with brief exercises reminiscent of Bach’s short preludes for keyboard in their lyricism and brevity leading into a stringent, momentous fugue and a final impressive synthesis of lyricism, innovation, and energy.