Tuesday, June 6, 2023 Jun 6, 2023
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Music That Less Than Championship Season

The Black Hawks play hockey at Fair Park. The Symphony plays music at Fair Park. They’re both minor league.
By David Ritz |

Driving over to Fair Park the last three or four months, I have not been able to forget that often I faced a choice between two kinds of entertainment occurring at the same time: at the Music Hall, the symphony played, while down the street, in the livestock arena, the Blackhawks played. Hockey or Haydn, I thought to myself.

If there is one thing, though, which has kept me away from both the symphony and the hockey squad, depending upon the season, it is that hateful label which can have a way of de-glamorizing anything it’s applied to-Minor League. In the case of the Blackhawks, an enormously successful group prodded on by fire-eating coach Bobby Kromm, the label is literal. They are, as a friend calls them, the little Hawks. The big Hawks fly in Chicago, home of the parent club. In the case of the Dallas Symphony, the label is, I’ll admit, a bit subjective. Yet is there anyone who will even argue that the orchestra, at least for this painful, off-again on-again season, was not bush league?

Then the question becomes, with our local hockey squad or our local symphony orchestra, can we see our way through a season which affords us something less than big league play? The answer, of course, depends upon the degree to which you need the thrill of a power play or the surge of mighty Beethoven coming at you from all sides. If you are a true fan, you’ll take what you can get. You’ll be grateful for the mere fact of people skating around a rink or sitting upon a stage, giving you a taste of what you want. You’ll rationalize the quality of play. You’ll tell yourself that it’s better than staying at home and watching Carol Burnett or spending the evening at Pizza Inn. But unlike the little Hawks, who by May had skated themselves into the championship finals of the Central Hockey League, the symphony, by the time Eileen Farrell hit town in late April, seemed to have reached a dead end.

We need to remind ourselves, of course, that to have had live symphonic music at all this year was something of a minor miracle. In this sense, of course, Dallas is not alone. Financial trouble for high-brow music brews far and near; it is, in fact, a world-wide misfortune. Grand opera, for example, is having more money problems in Mamma Italy than probably anywhere in the world. There’s a real chance La Scala will fold next year. So it was partially in appreciation of this small wonder that I began to trek down to Second Avenue on any number of Saturday nights (having to avoid the temptation to play hooky and watch hockey instead). No matter, I was geared up for the symphony.

There were some fine, even wonderful moments. The night Alexis Weissenberg played Brahms, I sensed a huge longing in the audience for much of the beauty that he was able to give them. And there was one extraordinary Saturday night, March 22 to be exact, when for several hours the orchestra played like a real symphony, culminating with Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” tone poem, a piece played with remarkable tenderness and sensitivity. It was the evening’s final selection. Something happened; the hall was still, as though everyone knew a fine achievement had been wrought. Several seconds elapsed, several seconds of nervous silence, and then the house broke into wild applause. On the way out, I noticed a neighbor with tears welled up in her eyes. “It was so beautiful,” she said quietly to me as we exchanged glances, “so very beautiful.” She was right, and, at least for a fleeting instant, it seemed as though our symphony had made it.

It was also a pleasure, later, watching Aaron Copland. He looked like Dr. Spock, and seemed to possess the dignified confidence and wisdom of the good doctor as he conducted with enormous grace and delicacy. Musically, though, only the suite from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande moved me and seemed to raise the symphony above the level of the routine.

But aside from these few exceptional nights, or portions of these nights, the rest were mediocre. The Symphony Association, in its planning, still relied heavily on crowd-pleasing programs and music “marketing.” There was an “All French Program,” an “All Brahms Program,” an “All Beethoven Program,” an “All Wagner Program,” an “All Russian Program.” In short, something for everyone. (I began to wonder if the symphony would resort to “Baton Night” the way baseball teams at-tract fans to “Bat Night” or “Cap Night.”) The product was packaged like so many flavors of Baskin-Rob-bins ice cream. In the process, we were served up huge portions of middle-brow musical dishes, with barely any Mozart, and no Haydn.

At some point in the season we learned that Louis Lane had been appointed co-principal conductor. The title sounds like the basis of an old Sid Caesar skit. I could picture a rehearsal hall filled with identical-looking co-principal conductors, then assistant co-principals, then co-assistants, each of whom would take a crack at whipping the orchestra into shape. At a time when it appeared that, more than ever, the symphony required a leader, a decisive and major figure who would, with a firm hand, take charge, we were given not a musical director but someone whose name must be preceded by a “co” at all times.

It’s too early to speak definitively of Lane. I do not know how much he had to do with the uninspired programming of this year’s season. He seemed anxious. He literally rushed his way through the early spring. He was exceptionally tight. Interpretations were stilted and cramped. He seemed to give the orchestra little room to breathe. But there was, I imagine, very little time to put the musical house in order. And it is hard to fault Lane for an atmosphere which was high-strung even before he arrived. “Beethoven Night” was certainly the most popular flavor; the crowd gobbled it up. (The crowd, by the way, seemed to love everything most every night I went. They couldn’t wait to stand up and scream with delight.) But the Fifth Symphony, the biggest hit of the night, was poorly and blandly executed and brought out the tinniess of the strings and the general thinness that characterized the orchestra for much of the season. Another example: on “Wagner Night,” Eileen Farrell valiantly fought her way through parts of Die Meistersinger and Tristan and Isolde. She still has something left and cut an imposing Wagnerian figure as she bravely planted herself in front of the symphony. Unfortunately, she kept fading in and out and I had the feeling of trying to tune a radio into the proper signal. I kept losing her. At times, the orchestra ran over her; at times, it was the less-than-brilliant acoustics of the hall; and at times, in spite of noble efforts, the voice simply cut out.

And so it went. Lots of energy spent on programming and promotion; precious little fine music played in ways which would elevate our hearts and minds to loftier thoughts. I am pleased that the season was somewhat of a box office success. But first things must come first. And in the instance of a symphony orchestra, good music must come first.

The same goes for the pops concerts. I confess to being ambivalent about these events. The crowds always flip over them and I spend my time, or at least most of my time, gnashing my teeth and feeling snotty about the low level of music being played. I love watching people loving music, but it depresses me to see a crowd in ecstasy over ding-dong school arrangements of “Cabaret” or “Mame.”

There is a real need for pops concerts, just as there is a need for the more serious stuff; after all, people want them. But there are pops programs and then there are pops programs. The Ella Fitzgerald concert is a good case in point.

Supposedly, the first pops night was devoted to Ella Fitzgerald singing Duke Ellington. The very thought of such a combination was nothing short of thrilling. But the billing turned out to be a white lie. The first half of the concert was a disaster, with Carmon DeLeone leading the symphony through some of the silliest music I’ve heard since taking a ride in an elevator with piped-in 101 Strings. Ellington was treated to a mere nod. And when it was Ella’s turn, she sang very little Duke. The great lady herself was not in top form (she has not been in top form for the past five years). She sang a breathtakingly lovely song, “My Ship,” which usually gives me goose bumps. The problem, as Ella herself noted, was that she did not know the song-and you could tell. Most depressing of all, though, was the pathetic sight of one of our great singers trying to be “modern” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” or trying to be “soulful” with current hits. What should have been a splendid concert, based on a splendid idea, turned to mush. No vintage Ellington was even attempted. And the crowd loved it. (In all fairness, though, the second pops event-Professor Peter Schickele and his P.D.Q. Bach routine – was very funny and provided the comic relief the season was yearning for.)

My final point is not startlingly new, you’ve heard it before, but it must be said again: great symphonies, great pop seasons, great musical events, great musical institutions endure because they are great. It may not seem logical, but music “marketing” is not the final nor most efficacious way to sell a symphony. Fine music is, and so is fine leadership. And during the season, I kept wondering to myself whether a symphony orchestra doesn’t need to gamble, the way, for instance, a struggling sports franchise often does, and put its money on a superstar music director-a Rostropovich, say-who will take us out of the minors. After all, the ice cream may look good and satisfy for a short while, but it doesn’t last long.

Next season I see we are promised any number of big name great artists-Sills and Arrau and Verrett and Rostropovich-but it is very telling, and a bit ominous, that on the calendar of concerts for the 1975-76 subscription series, other than the “Messiah,” no music is mentioned, only a list of what should be crowd-pleasing artists of one kind or another.