Donnacha Dennehy. Courtesy of Muziek Centrum NL.

Classical Note: From a Van Cliburn Tribute to Donnacha Dennehy’s The Vandal

Critic Wayne Lee Gay considers a busy classical season, with a note about new work coming this summer.

Tributes and memorial concerts can all too often slip into mawkishness; the idea of a tribute to the late, great Van Cliburn as part of the Soundings: New Music at the Nasher series at first seemed a little off-center, and possibly even misconceived.

For starters, the Soundings series, as its full title indicates, is devoted to innovation—primarily to looking at new music, but also to looking at unfamiliar but worthy music, and to new ways of looking at older material.

Cliburn, on the other hand, was a traditionalist par excellence—a concert artist in the late romantic tradition, focusing on standard repertoire works in standard formats.

Soundings is principally a chamber music series, and Cliburn was very rarely a participant in chamber music.
Cliburn was a musical celebrity and icon; the Soundings series, in its devotion to the concept of “new” music, inherently avoids the notion of celebrity.

That said, the event completely justified itself.

Six established but relatively young pianists (Lindsay Garritson, Andrea Lam, Alex McDonald, Tomoki Sakata, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Amy Yang), were all associated with the Cliburn Competition through past participation in the event. They collaborated on Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos, trading off between movements. Cliburn never played a note of Messiaen in public—and hardly touched anything beyond the romantic mainstream of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and fellow travelers. His value system and world-view was clearly American, Protestant, and conservative, while Messiaen’s music is steeped in a mystical Catholicism apparently influenced by Asian philosophy.

And yet, the six young pianists clearly staked out common ground with Cliburn’s oft-reiterated ideal of the spirituality of music, and of his concept of a community of musicians working together. This particular work is unique in that rather than becoming weakened or disjointed in performance by multiple pianists, the range of interpretation and variety of personality actually strengthened its effect. And that effect, ultimately, was as near to overwhelming as one can experience in a classical music performance.

The concert—and the 2013-14 Soundings season itself—closed after intermission with a collaboration of the renowned Juilliard Quartet and pianist Leon Fleisher, in Brahms’ Quintet in F minor. This particular quartet and pianist are representative of the rich American musical establishment in which Cliburn basked during the heyday of his career. Their performance was characterized by impeccable artistry and muscular energy.

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The Dallas Symphony closed its 2013-14 classical subscription season as well as its multi-week Beethoven Festival with a program performed at the Meyerson Symphony Center. At Friday night’s performance, music director Jaap van Zweden thoughtfully navigated the energy of the featured composer’s Egmont Overture before turning to an elegantly-shaped rendition of the Triple Concerto, with radiant performances in the solo ensemble from violinist Alexander Kerr (the orchestra’s co-concertmaster) and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianist Martin Helmchen, both guest artists. After intermission, for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Van Zweden returned to the nearly boisterous approach he had applied in recent weeks to Beethoven’s Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. This enduring journey from C minor to C major provided an appropriately joyous exclamation point to the season and the festival.

The final notes of the region’s symphonic season sounded last weekend at Bass Performance Hall as the Fort Worth Symphony closed its 2013-14 classical subscription, once again calling attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the area’s symphonic scene.

Of the two fully professional orchestras in the area—both within easy driving range of any motivated fan of symphonic music in Dallas, Tarrant, and neighboring counties—the Dallas Symphony, with its full symphonic entourage and uninterrupted, 52-week paycheck for musicians, generally produces more reliably polished performances in its subscription series at Meyerson Symphony Center.

The Fort Worth Symphony, meanwhile, with a smaller group of professional musicians at a lower salary rate, generally meets a high standard of performance—but not on quite the same level of major-orchestra excellence as does Dallas.

In the area of programming, however, the Fort Worth Symphony and music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya consistently outperform their Dallas counterparts.

The Dallas Symphony and music director Jaap van Zweden closed their season earlier in May with a risk-free series of all-Beethoven concerts, including outstanding performances of familiar works. While Beethoven’s masterpieces are always worth a listen, and the performances were both exciting and polished, the event offered little in the way of context or thoughtfulness, other than a reiteration of the concept that Beethoven was a genius and his music is good. On the heels of a season marked by the absence of works of living composers, the festival risked being labeled merely as entertainment, rather than an artistic event.

The Fort Worth Symphony’s final concert, meanwhile, reminded—as that orchestra’s concerts generally do—that there is more to music than a handful of iconic classics.

Not that there weren’t points in the Fort Worth concert one could criticize and question. Composer-in-residence Donnacha Dennehy’s The Vandal was adventurous in concept but predictable in its compositional execution. Only its relative brevity (nine minutes from first note to last) and sometimes original orchestral colors counteracted a stubborn lack of harmonic invention. Guest trumpet soloist Tine Thing Helseth played Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat with a 21st Century assertiveness that sacrificed much of the work’s 18th Century elegance. She was right on target, however, with a brilliantly rousing rendition of the late Armenian composer Alexander Aruthunian’s richly melodic and exotically scored Trumpet Concerto.

Thus, the audience was given much new material, and much to think about. The concert closed with a well-paced, nicely shaped rendition of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, rounding out an agenda that was varied and intellectually as well as emotionally satisfying.

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Excerpts from Dallas-based composer Simon Sargon’s full-length opera Saul will be performed in concert at 7:30 pm on June 7 at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center. Born in Mumbai, India, but raised and educated in the U.S., Sargon draws on a rich multi-cultural heritage in his music. For this opera, he has turned to a complex Biblical character whose psychological dilemmas resonate across the millennia. Baritone Donnie Ray Albert will take the title role in the production, with Clifton Forbis as David and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck as Samuel.