“Not every concert we do is a history lesson,” a Dallas Symphony member quasi-apologized to me after the orchestra’s Spring for Music Carnegie Hall concert last night. ”I’m looking forward to getting back to Beethoven and Brahms.”
We talked about that a while. ”But we couldn’t have played here with standard repertoire.”
And that’s the point, of course. Orchestras applied to be part of this 8-day festival at Carnegie Hall, presenting orchestras from around the country performing innovate programs. The Dallas Symphony commissioned Steven Stucky to compose a work in honor of Lyndon Johnson‘s 100th birthday. The oratorio August 4, 1964, libretto by Gene Scheer, with its Beethoven-Ninth forces (choir and solo vocal quartet) was the result. Premiered in 2008, it was performed again and recorded last week in Dallas. It is this substantial and ambitious work that the orchestra and its music director Jaap van Zweden proposed to bring to Carnegie Hall. Not surprisingly, they were invited to do so.
Imagine being the President of the United States. While America’s favorite pastime seems to be not baseball but finding fault with whomever is in office, the weight of the responsibilities is such that I always feel for–and root for, even when I’m feeling exasperated–the sitting president.
August 4, 1964. You’re Lyndon Baines Johnson. The morning brings news (later shown to be false) that U.S. ships are under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. In the evening, word that the long-recalcitrant FBI has finally discovered the bodies of three young civil rights workers. You insist the announcement of the latter be held until you–the president–have called the families. And then you go on national television to, in essence, lie to the American people about an attack that never happened, and announce the start of bombing (a process that will eventually lead to your own political downfall).
Stucky and Sheer’s work, using texts from recorded phone conversations, letters, etc., shows LBJ at his best (the compassionate civil rights advocate personally notifying the families) and his worst, seemingly manipulated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and by a fear of appearing weak, into starting the bombing that led the U.S. into the debacle of the Vietnam War. As with John Adams’s Nixon in China, a president who is tragic and heroic figure. A riveting subject for a musical drama.
Soloists Vale Rideout (McNamara) and Rod Gilfry (Johnson) sat to the conductor’s right, as viewed from the audience. Indira Mahajan (playing the mother of African-American James Chaney, one of the slain activists) and Kristine Jepson (the mother of Andrew Goodman, a white anthropolgy student from New York) were on his left. (The other murdered student was Michael Schwerner.) Each pair inhabited separate vocal and musical worlds in Stucky’s fascinating musical construction.
This tragic subject matter makes perfect material for an evening-length work. The music is eclectic and varied, at times lushly neo-romantic, at others driving and agitated. Wonderfully crafted, of course, with fabulous orchestration. I didn’t respond emotionally to all of it; I’d like to hear it again, and am glad to hear it’s been recorded for release. The center of the piece is an orchestral Elegy, which captivated me, followed by an exquisite aria, “Letter from Mississippi,” in which Mrs. Goodman reads the last letter from her son before he disappeared. It devastated me; I wasn’t the only one crying. For a first hearing of a big new work, that was quite something.
Not as many people from Dallas, when it came time to wave their (yellow) bandanas, as there had been from Toledo and Albany earlier in the series, but still quite a few. That’s not a surprise, given the distance. The main level (where I sat) was mostly full, as were the boxes. The balcony levels were essentially empty. That’s a good idea, I think, and good management, because in the rest of the hall there was that special full-house energy. (I was at a Beethoven 9th performance earlier in the winter where the balcony was full but, for some reason, the main floor half-empty, and it felt like a party no one came to.)
“We’re doing Beethoven Ninth when we get back,” that Dallas Symphony member told me. ”Third time in four years.” A sigh. Overdosed on Stucky, but not all that excited about Beethoven Ninth, either. This person loves being a member of that orchestra. But as with most jobs, there’s ambivalence. “I tried to get myself excited about this concert. It’s Carnegie Hall, after all.”
It was clear that other members of the orchestra were excited; I met some after the concert who told me how enthusiastic they were about the piece. But not all of them. As beautifully as this major orchestra played, the strongest visual impression was of calm professionalism. As we wonder about what symphony orchestras can do to attract new and younger audiences, this is an issue. You love your job, but can’t get all that excited for either yet another Stucky performance or yet another Beethoven Ninth performance. That’s called being human.
But we spend money to go to concerts to get more in touch with our humanity. To have an emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually engaging experience. We don’t want to see and hear calm professionalism (and I don’t mean to imply that this is all there was at last night’s performance).
How do you get 85-100 orchestral musicians to all be passionate at the same time? I have no idea.