La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 18 November 2012

DSO/van Zweden Record LBJ Concert Drama in Dallas

Steven Stucky: August 4, 1964
Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Jaap van Zweden
Date of recording: May 6, 2011 (live)
Place of recording: Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas
DSO Live DSOL-4 (72 m 21 s)

In Texas, especially in Austin where he lived most of his life and where his library is located, 36th President of the United States ((1963-1969), Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), is a legendary figure. The Johnson ranch, just outside the capital, is visited by thousands every year, and the library hosts major speakers and conferences.

LBJ was a native son of Texas who became president of the United States under horrendous circumstances - the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963 on the streets of Dallas. It was the Dallas Symphony that commissioned a work to commemorate the Johnson centenary in 2008.

Composer Steven Stucky (photo: right) and librettist Gene Sheer came up with a “concert drama” as they called it, which binds together two important events in American history that defined Johnson’s presidency: the first, the finding of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi; the second, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, half way across the world, which accelerated American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The deaths of the Mississippi civil rights workers moved LBJ to launch an FBI investigation and led to landmark civil rights legislation that ended segregation. For that, LBJ is remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, on the other hand, prompted him to an overreaction to events that may or may not have occurred and ultimately sent tens of thousands of American troops to Vietnam to fight what was ultimately seen to be a futile and unnecessary war.

The Vietnam War ultimately destroyed LBJ’s presidency and quite possibly hastened the death of the man himself.

In conflating these two events, Stucky and Sheer have tried to capture the essence of the Johnson years in Washington; ultimately, Johnson is defined in the piece as a misguided figure who totally misunderstood America’s role in Vietnam and made the decisions that led to 58,000 U.S.  and 3.7 million Vietnamese deaths.

While history has been kind to LBJ on the civil rights issue, in the Stucky piece he is depicted as somewhat passive in the face of the killings of the three young civil rights workers. If the idea of the centenary commission was to honour LBJ, the donors to the project may well have been taken aback by this depiction of the President.

August 4, 1964 is not a great piece and it fails for a variety of reasons, starting with the libretto. If this were an opera, we would have characters like LBJ, his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (photo: left) and the mothers of the slain civil rights workers playing their historic roles, with LBJ at the center of it all as a troubled but ultimately tragic figure.

In real life, McNamara later admitted that he had failed to understand the Vietnam War and had made terrible decisions. He was a truly pitiful figure and could be rendered as a riveting character on stage.

But this work is not an opera. Instead, we have the above-named characters appearing from time to time singing more or less their own words as we know them, often in the Oval Office, with, at one point, a poem by Stephen Spender thrown into the mix; unfortunately, there is no clear dramatic arch to the text except that the work quotes Spender at the beginning and the end using poetic language that is really too abstract either to focus the mind or to touch the heart.

The characters in Stuckey’s piece never come to life, least of all Johnson; at the end, we have neither a new appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses nor a better understanding of his feelings about much of anything.

While using it not only as a unifying device in the work, but also as a commentary on the events depicted, I wonder if Sheer and Stucky really understand the Spender poem, which is clearly a tribute to the power of the solitary artist or activist.

Spender (photo: right) himself said that when he wrote it at age 21 he had in mind “Beethoven’s late quartets, movies by Eisenstein of heroic workers and so on, D.H. Lawrence’s ideas about sex and perhaps Michelangelo’s sculpture” (The Poetry Archive). While it seems obvious that Sheer and Stucky are applying this message to the three civil rights workers murdered in fighting for a just cause (they quote Goodman’s mother saying that “when my son was killed I put some lines on the wall of my apartment in New York City”), the work is ultimately about LBJ. Listeners might well take away the impression that the words of Goodman’s mother - “I think continually of those who were truly great” - were meant to apply to LBJ.

It seems to me that any composer writing a work of this kind must ask him/herself, “What is to be gained by having this text sung rather than spoken.” In the case of real people appearing in August 4, 1964 singing their own words, too often my response was “Nothing.” Even worse, in many cases, including some in this instance, when text is sung rather than spoken, intelligibility flies out the window.

Apparently Movement 11 – the penultimate movement - was a late addition and came to be known as “McNamara’s Lament.” While it alludes to McNamara’s latter day self-flagellation over the Vietnam War, and gives the concert drama, at least in small measure, a point of view it otherwise lacks, for many people who opposed the Vietnam War it will seem too mild a rebuke of government leaders who let American hubris get the better of them. Incidentally, as printed in the CD booklet, the name ‘McNamara’ is left off the sub-heading for Movement 11.

Without a better libretto, composer Stucky had one hand tied behind his back before he started. That said, the music itself is disappointingly mundane and unmemorable. To relieve the relentless mournfulness of the subject matter, the composer and librettist give us a somewhat contrived scene in the middle of the piece depicting the battle in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although skillfully written for soloists, orchestra and chorus, the music comes across as uninspired.

Despite my reservations about the quality of the piece itself, this recorded performance certainly makes the best possible case for the work. The chorus and orchestra produce a glorious sound and under Jaap van Zweden every detail seems to be in its proper place. The dynamic range is colossal thanks to van Zweden, the Meyerson Symphony Center and the recording engineers.

While I think August 4, 1964 has serious structural and conceptual problems, this concert drama is nonetheless an important reminder of the great and terrible events it commemorates.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home