La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jaap van Zweden's 1st Season in Dallas a Phenomenal Success!

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

There is no doubt about it. A new era of musical excellence is underway in Dallas. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has just finished his first season as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and even the musicians are shaking their heads in disbelief. Is he really this good? Are we this good? “Yes,” and “yes” to both questions.

All this excitement notwithstanding, on May 21st at the Meyerson, the 'curtain went up' on a program that appeared neither well planned nor very convincing – at least on paper.

Van Zweden is passionate about opera. For this evening, he and the DSO had scheduled a concert performance of Madama Butterfly, but like orchestras everywhere, the Dallas Symphony has had to rework its budget in the face of a punishing recession; thus, instead of Madama Butterfly, we had, on the face of it, a mishmash of Tchaikovsky and Brahms culminating in yet another unnecessary performance of the 1812 Overture.

No matter. I would pay to hear Jaap van Zweden conduct Happy Birthday because I know he would give it one of the finest performances I have ever heard.

A Rousing but Anti-climactic 1812 Overture
The 1812 Overture, on this occasion, was the version by Igor Buketoff in which a chorus is substituted for lower strings in the opening bars and then makes several later appearances in the piece. We didn’t have cannons or fireworks in this performance, but the sparks were flying nonetheless in the overheated tempi chosen by van Zweden. The Dallas Symphony Chorus didn’t sound very Russian – not enough Russian basses have emigrated to Dallas, I guess – but they did their work with accuracy and gusto.

As good as it was, the 1812 Overture was an anticlimax after the most stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien I have ever heard.

Superb Performance Recorded for DSO's Own Label!
Capriccio Italien begins with brass fanfares, based apparently on bugle calls Tchaikovsky heard played by an Italian cavalry regiment. It goes on to a series of Italian folk songs and street music and finishes with a wild tarantella.

One particular section in this performance of the work sounded more intense and ominous than I ever imagined it could. It was the soft, triplet accompaniment in the brass that did it. This figure was played with such rhythmic accuracy and so darkly that it became progressively more menacing.

‘Menacing’ or ‘ominous’ are not adjectives one normally associates with pop concert fare like Capriccio Italien. Hearing this performance, I began to suspect that the Italian influence here was Verdi.

This is what a conductor like van Zweden can do for ‘familiar’ repertoire. He approaches such pieces as if they deserved the commitment he would give to a Mahler symphony. Each phrase is given new life. Note values are accurately observed and balances are worked out in careful detail.

When Capriccio Italien moved into dance territory, van Zweden nearly danced himself off the podium and this involvement was infectious. The string sound soared and surged; it was fulsome and joyous. And the best was yet to come.

In this piece, Tchaikovsky’s brass section is headed by pairs of cornets and trumpets, the former employed for their sound and their super chromatic capabilities compared to the trumpet in Tchaikovsky’s time. Principal trumpet Ryan Anthony chose to play a cornet for this piece and the results were wonderful. It was just the right Italian folk music sound for the lyrical sections – with a generous helping of vibrato - and the agility of the instrument (and the player!) in the quick passages worked perfectly too.

For all its extraordinary nuances, what I’ll remember most about this performance is how van Zweden steadily increased the tempo in the proverbial ‘race to the finish.’ Van Zweden was fearless in his acceleration and the DSO players were with him every step of the way. This was virtuoso playing of the highest order.

Fortunately, this concert was being recorded for broadcast. Even better, the Capriccio Italien is scheduled for release later this year on the DSO’s own label. It will be coupled with a Tchaikovsky Fifth recorded earlier this season. If the recording of Capriccio Italien is anything close to what I heard Thursday night, it will be sensational.

Violinist Simone Lamsma Wows Audience!
The first half of the concert was pretty remarkable too. The young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma made her debut with the DSO in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Ms. Lamsma was scheduled to be a featured soloist with the orchestra in its forthcoming European tour; unfortunately, the tour has been scrubbed for the time being. It is hard to justify foreign tours when the basic operating budget is taking such a beating.

In any case, it was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of the gifted Ms. Lamsma, winner of at least four major violin competitions in the past three years. She has a formidable technique and a warm, distinctive sound. With van Zweden on the podium - a colleague who has played this concerto himself -this was a fine collaboration. The orchestra played with great sensitivity and panache!

Ms. Lamsma returns next season to play the Britten Violin Concerto.

The concert opened with BrahmsSchicksalslied (Song of Destiny) , a setting for chorus and orchestra of a poem by Hölderlin. This is a beautiful if slight work by Brahms but it hardly fits in an all-Tchaikovsky program. And while the chorus sang beautifully, I thought that van Zweden miscalculated both dynamics and tempo. He started the piece so slowly and so softly that the line could not be sustained. Nor could the strings produce sufficient weight of sound. Still, this piece does not turn up often in concert and it was a pleasure to hear it, especially in an ideal acoustical setting like the Meyerson.

Jaap van Zweden has given Dallas a season of insight and excitement, with much more to come. Among the highlights next season will be the Mahler First and Second Symphonies, the Bruckner Ninth, the Rachmaninov Second Symphony and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad.)

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Van Zweden Galvanizes Dallas Symphony!

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels


Conductors come and go, but it is always a thrill to see one who really makes a difference. At the beginning of this season, Jaap Van Zweden assumed the music directorship of the Dallas Symphony (DSO) and musical life in Dallas has not been the same since.

Van Zweden is not your Hollywood central casting conductor – in fact if you met him on the street you might mistake him for a wrestler or a weight-lifter – but conducting has less to do with how you look than what you can do with an orchestra.

Van Zweden is obviously a driven man and he expects that same drive from his players. At the concert I attended, there was no one sitting back and taking it easy. Instead of the lazy, half-hearted bowing one sees so often in string sections, every man and woman was bowing as if their lives depended on it. Not since Sir Georg Solti commanded a podium have I seen such intensity from a conductor.

Van Zweden’s message to the players? Music is serious stuff - I stayed up all night to figure this piece out and the least you can do is practice every waking hour until you are able to play it perfectly! Then we will start to work on interpretation and phrasing.

As it happens, earlier in his career, Van Zweden did play under Solti and other great conductors when he was concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, recently voted the number one orchestra in the world by a group of respected luminaries. Van Zweden learned the repertoire as a player in a world-class orchestra and he also learned what it takes to make music at the highest level. He has clearly brought that attitude to Dallas and the DSO players seem to like it a lot.

What I heard at the Myerson Symphony Center was remarkable by any standard and as a glimpse of things to come, it was tremendously exciting.

The concert was a somewhat belated New Year’s celebration, loosely modeled on the annual event by the Vienna Philharmonic broadcast worldwide. This means music by the Strauss family, and it also means finishing up with the likes of the Blue Danube Waltz and the Radetzky March. To give the occasion an American flavor, Van Zweden ended the evening with Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, and earlier had presented Leroy Anderson’s somewhat dated novelty piece, The Typewriter.

Stokowski’s Orchestration of Pictures Rivals Ravel
The tour de force of the evening was Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano piece, Pictures at an Exhibition. There are those who still wonder whether Stokowski actually wrote the many transcriptions attributed to him. There is strong evidence that much of this work was really done by Lucien Cailliet, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Stokowski era (1912-1936). The fact is that this orchestration is a fine alternative to the famous Ravel arrangement of the Mussorgsky original.

One of the devices Mussorgsky used to link the ‘pictures’ (by the composer’s friend Victor Hartmann) depicted in the piece is the ‘promenade” - walking music, if you will - as the visitor strolls from one exhibit to another in the gallery. The piece begins with just such a promenade and in the Ravel version, it is given to a solo trumpet. It is one of the best-known passages in classical music.

The Stokowski version starts quite differently, with rich and dark sonorities in the string section (with some reinforcement from an organ), and in the performance by Van Zweden and the DSO one was taken aback by the weight and opulence of the sound. This was the special quality of the hall yielding to a conductor skilled at eliciting the sound he wants from an orchestra. The performance went on from there to surprise and thrill us with playing of razor-sharp precision and a vast range of color.

Curiosities abound in Stokowski’s version of Pictures. Nearly always, Stokowski chose instruments and combinations of instruments far removed from the Ravel version. In several sections of the score, however, he seems to be saying - ‘Ravel’s choice of instrument was so inspired and so right I couldn’t possibly do better’; ergo, both the Ravel and Stokowski orchestrations feature a solo saxophone in 'Il Vecchio Castello' and a solo trumpet in 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.'

Van Zweden, DSO & Myerson Symphony Center - Triumphant Trio!
I look forward to returning to Dallas for more music-making from Jaap Van Zweden and his newly-galvanized Dallas Symphony. I’ll certainly have a lot more to say about Van Zweden, but I can’t emphasize enough that Dallas has one of the world’s great concert halls.

There are only a handful of concert halls in North America that come anywhere close to the quality of the Myerson Symphony Center. What makes it great? In a few words - the sound jumps off the stage and involves the listener. The sound enhances the timbre of every instrument in the orchestra and makes them sound well together. It helps too that the Myerson looks so good inside and out, and that you can get a good meal there!

Later this year, the Myerson will be joined by the new Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre just across the way. Within the span of a few blocks, one can also enjoy the treasures of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art.

This is the Dallas Arts District, a work in progress for many years but now coming to completion. Big D is about to become bigger and better than ever.

From Triumphant Trios to Cuatro Leches at La Duni – Dallas Delights!
It is not in the Arts District, but La Duni, a Latin Café on Mckinney - where the Cuatro Leches cake alone would keep me coming back - is one of the places we always visit on our return trips to Dallas, where we lived several years.

There is much more to savor at La Duni, however, than cake; for example, several dozen kinds of coffee, and a wide variety of amazing tortas (sandwiches), including our current favorite - the 'Choripan' with Argentinian sausage, avocado and manchego cheese stuffed in a fresh popover and served with yucca fries!

La Duni’s McKinney Street location opened in 2001 with founders Espartaco and Dunia Borga at the helm, and there are now two other locations in Dallas. Word on the street – actually, from one of the La Duni staff members – is that within a year or so, there will be a La Duni in Austin. Great news for Austinites, like us!

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar; Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music; and Stokowski (Spring 2009), all available at

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Austin 'Salon Concerts' Celebrates Violin & Cello Reunion

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson



Every month, forty or so music-lovers gather in one of the finest private homes in Austin to listen to chamber music: this is Salon Concerts, now in its nineteenth season.

Salon Concerts was created by two of the finest musicians in the area – violinist Robert Rudié and pianist/composer Kathryn Mishell. As Robert approaches his 90th year, he continues to appear as a violinist in the series – at this concert he played excerpts from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin with wonderful tone and expression - but more and more of the artistic direction has been taken over by his wife, Kathryn. I joined the group for their latest soirée called Instrumental Magnetism, and enjoyed it immensely, not least of all for the chance to hear a new work by Kathryn.

Made by the Same Master, Violin & Cello Notably Drawn Together
The piece was called "Duo for Violin and Cello: Reunion," and there is a fascinating back story. In the 1860s in Paris, one of the great makers of string instruments was Gand Frères. Of the many instruments produced by the company over the years, two of them found their way to Austin. There was a violin owned by Brian Lewis, a professor of violin at the University of Texas, and a cello owned by Douglas Harvey, principal cellist of the Austin Symphony and the Austin Lyric Opera. In fact, the two instruments were part of a set of four commissioned by Napoleon III and all were made from the same piece of wood!

While the two Austin musicians knew each other, neither knew until recently that the other owned a Gand. Lewis and Mishell had the brilliant idea of bringing the two musicians together to play chamber music on their “Gands.” But more than that, Mishell would bring them together to play music especially written for them and their precious instruments.

Against this background, composer Mishell set to work. As a unifying musical device she used the familiar French nursery song"Frère Jacques," thus indicating 1) the birthplace of the instruments - Paris, France, 2) the makers of the instruments - Gand Frères, and 3) the fact that in being created from the same piece of wood, the two instruments are natural brothers (frères).

Kathryn went a step further. She told me that since the sibling instruments were born in 1863 and 'grew up' in France, they would have known and 'sung' "Frère Jacques" as 'children', as the first publication of the words and music together dates from 1860.

Lewis and Harvey gave a fine performance of the new piece, showing off their Gands and their own considerable talents. Lewis even brought along some coins from the time of Napoleon III to show audience members, in the spirit of the occasion.

Vitizslava Kaprálová's Rarely Performed "Elegy" Rates More Play
The first half of the evening’s program included an impassioned performance of Bohuslav Martinu’s "Three Madrigals" by Lewis and Bruce Williams, principal violist of the Austin Symphony. Lewis and pianist Rick Rowley then presented the rarely-heard "Elegy" by Martinu student Vitizslava Kaprálová. Mishell is well-known for championing women composers – her KMFA radio series Into the Light won a Communicator Award of Distinction last year – and tries to work at least one piece by a woman into each Salon Concerts program.

Kaprálová was a gifted young Czech composer destined to become a major figure. Sadly, her life was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five in 1940. The "Elegy" is a beautiful piece and deserves to be better-known. For more on Kaprálová visit the website of the Kaprálová Society. The society is based in Toronto and includes on its advisory board two old friends of mine: pianist Antonin Kubalek and conductor/broadcaster Kerry Stratton.

A Joyous Evening of Intimate Music-making...
The major work on the program was Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8, played by Lewis, Harvey and Rowley. I prefer the opening tune played with a little more restraint so that one can fully savor its breadth and nobility, but in this performance enthusiasm and the sheer joy of making music carried everything before it. After all, the tempo marking is ‘Allegro con brio’.

I think, however, that I have the composer on my side for the tempo in the slow movement. Brahms marked it ‘Adagio’ and ‘four to the bar’, but pianist Rick Rowley started off at what seemed to me double the tempo, with far too much volume. Surely, those opening chords are meant to suggest almost a suspension of time, just hanging in the air, at a distance, and barely audible. Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve in the living room of a private home - but it can be done.

...Followed by Mixing, Mingling and Fine Food & Wine
As always, the music-making was followed by some world-class cuisine, prepared by the ever-resourceful Chef Pascal.

If I am giving the impression that Salon Concerts is some kind of elitist enterprise, bear in mind that the price tag for the concert and the food was all of $35. Consider also that Salon Concerts manages to raise enough money to maintain its educational activities, in addition to its intimate concert series; the CHAMPS program provides weekly chamber music coaching to over sixty young musicians in Austin’s middle and high schools every year.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

Blog photo by Marita.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

J. Robert Oppenheimer as an Operatic Character in John Adams' Dr. Atomic

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

I went to the Met HD Live at the new Cinemark complex in Cedar Park, one of Austin’s northern suburbs. Only ten people showed up for John Adam’s Dr. Atomic. Perhaps not surprising for a contemporary piece with no big names in the cast, but cause for concern about the future of this project. More about that later.

Timely Topic: A World in Crisis & the Question of Morality
Whatever else one may say about the Dr. Atomic it served the admirable purpose of reminding us that we live under the shadow of the atom bomb and that nuclear annihilation is only an irrational finger on the trigger away. Adams’ opera deals with the first test firing of the bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico July 16, 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project which developed the bomb and his anguish about the morality of the project is the focus of the opera. The leading characters in addition to Oppenheimer are his wife Kitty, their American Indian maid Pasqualita and another scientist even more troubled than Oppenheimer, Edward Teller.

But while the subject matter is very timely – concern continues to rise all over the world about possible development of nuclear weapons in Iran, the sanity of Kim Jong Il in North Korea and the shaky political situation in Pakistan – I am not convinced that Adams and his librettist Peter Sellars made the right choices. To bring to life the tragic figure Oppenheimer really was it is necessary to follow his life after the development of the atom bomb. That’s when doubt and remorse set in and his behavior and questionable past even led Washington politicians to destroy his reputation. He died essentially a broken man. There is plenty of evidence that Oppenheimer associated with members of the communist Party. What’s more both his wife and brother were members. Nonetheless, Oppenheimer was chosen to head up the most sensitive wartime program involving national security. In Dr. Atomic we get only a partial view of the man and not enough of him to carry the opera.

Dr. Atomic? Not Enough of Oppenheimer’s Life in this Opera!
Looking at the story from another point of view, it could be argued that it is hardly fair to blame Oppenheimer and his colleagues for the development of the bomb and for the horrors that followed when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Adams and Sellars clearly take sides in this matter by using the Los Alamos badge photos of all the scientists involved as the equivalent of police mug shots to vilify them. But the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project were basically ordered by the President and the Congress to develop an atom bomb and to do it as quickly as possible. If anyone is to blame for the bomb and how it was used, it is the politicians from Truman on down. And yet there is not a single politician in the opera, nor does anyone seem to be in contact with one. Very strange.

Natural Bedmates: Politics & War Conceive Atom Bomb!
What was the motivation for the development of the bomb? Why did they do it? After the Nazis had been defeated in Europe early in 1945, the world turned its attention to defeating the Japanese. But this war was much more uncertain and most politicians believed that it could drag on for years and that many more people would lose their lives. If it could be ended quickly many of those lives would be saved; hence, the haste to develop the bomb. This issue is hardly touched on in the opera. Instead, the opera focuses on the creation and use of atomic weapons as a difficult moral issue. But to my mind, whether that can be done without touching on war strategy or the role of the politicians is doubtful.

Operatic Style, the Meaning of it all, and Some Inspired new Arias
Dr. Atomic is not primarily a political or philosophical treatise or even a documentary; it is a work of art. Adams and Sellars draw on diaries kept by some of the participants but they rely more on poetry by Donne, Beaudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser as well as lines from the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita.

In operatic terms much of the discussion between characters onstage is on the level of everyday speech, recitative-style, but when the characters are alone they tend to be given extended arias with poetic texts. With this procedure Adams takes the “story” out of place and time into a more abstract and universal milieu. The characters are seen ruminating not about the tactical use of nuclear weapons to win the war nor even about the use of nuclear weapons generally but about the meaning of it all, the ultimate philosophical questions.

Fair enough. Development of weapons capable of wiping out civilization as we know it easily gives rise to such questions. But from an artistic point of view, what does the borrowing of lines from Donne, etc. do for the success of the opera? The answer is a great deal in some instances. Adams’ setting of Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’d God” at the end of Act I is surely one of the great set pieces written by any composer in the past twenty years. But elsewhere, especially in Kitty Oppenheimer’s “arias” I felt that the composer had lost his way.

Full Effect of Atom Bomb’s Aftermath Diminished by Artistic Choice
It is surely a major fault of the opera that nearly the whole of Act II seems to be about the weather. Characters talk endlessly about the storm interfering with the test. It is obviously getting on their nerves. And ours too. In an opera about big ideas – very big ideas – it makes no sense to spend so much time discussing the weather.

But am I missing the point? Surely the weather is a metaphor for the war, the troubled minds of the scientists and the military men, etc. It is also a device to build tension. Early on opera composers learned that there is nothing like thunder and lightning on stage to bedazzle the public. It is such an old and hoary device one is amazed that a composer as experienced as Adams would be caught using it.

To my mind we can only let Adams get away with it if there is a real payoff. In this case, it has to be the test itself, the explosion of the first atom bomb, immortalized in film footage we have all seen over and over. But the site of that monstrous mushroom cloud surely remains as frightening as it was the first time we saw it. But wait. This iconic image is not used in the opera. We don’t even get a blinding flash of light. Instead, while Oppenheimer and his colleagues wearing goggles and other protective gear stare out at the audience/test site we get words being spoken in Japanese, presumably by some of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we see projected translations. The connection is made between what Oppenheimer and his team created at Los Alamos and how it was used. We are left to ponder the Faustian connection between ultimate knowledge and soul-selling.

But as I mentioned earlier, Oppenheimer and his work had a context in which his country was engaged in a life and death struggle, and in which many Americans in elective office were agonizing over the use of nuclear weapons. And if one chooses to concentrate on the role of one man – J. Robert Oppenheimer – in this project, we need a far more comprehensive picture of the man than Adams and Sellars provide.

Fine Voices, Good Conducting, and More Technical Problems
For the record, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley sang very well indeed as Oppenheimer and Alan Gilbert making his Met debut was in total command of the complex score. The young American conductor takes over next season as music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Technical problems continue to be an issue at these Met broadcasts. In two different theaters I have had to go in search of a technician to turn up the volume, on another occasion to turn down the house lights, and on yet another to reset the satellite receiver when the broadcast was interrupted. The problem is that in multiplex theaters there is no projectionist in each theater so there is no one on site to rectify problems. And in spite of all the hoopla about surround sound in these theaters the audio quality for the Met broadcasts is awful. Voices come across quite well but the orchestral sound lacks weight and depth. EMI is now releasing some of the Met broadcasts from last season. I will be interested to hear if these DVDs provide better sound than we heard in the theaters.

A ‘Good Thing’, But Will it Last?
The Met HD Live project is a wonderful innovation but it is not where it needs to be if it is going to be of lasting artistic value. It worries me that so few people were in the theater for Dr. Atomic. I heard that at a repeat showing of Salome at one of the Austin theaters – with Karita Mattila giving a performance of staggering quality – hardly anyone showed up. The technical problems need to be addressed but much more needs to be done on the marketing side too. When the novelty wears off – and that appears to be starting to happen – there is work to be done at the local level to raise awareness and interest. In my experience, there is no signage for Met HD Live showings in the theaters themselves, let alone any local advertising. That is a recipe for disaster down the road.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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