by Paul E. Robinson
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III
Die Meistersinger: Prelude to Act I
Die Walküre: Act I (complete)
Heidi Melton , soprano (Sieglinde)
Clifton Forbis, tenor (Siegmund)
Eric Owens, bass (Hunding)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van
May 19, 2013
Since Wagner’s greatness as a composer has long been indisputable, and his music, to this day, is frequently played, we don’t need a special celebration of the 200th anniversary of his
birth to be reminded who he is or what his music sounds like; that said, it would certainly make sense to spend some time considering what makes this man unique and his music worth studying and playing far into
the future. The Dallas Symphony didn’t build such an event around Wagner last
week, but it did fashion a concert tribute that was second to none.
DSO/van Zweden Give Dallas Definitive Wagner
What made the Dallas concerts
so memorable was the authoritative conducting of Jaap van Zweden. This
extraordinary Dutch conductor has spent the past five years transforming the
Dallas Symphony into a world-class ensemble and they recently toured Europe together, winning rave reviews from Amsterdam to Vienna. Their Mahler,
Bruckner, Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky have been remarkable; this Wagner
program, however, reached a new level of accomplishment.
Jaap van Zweden has
not spent much time in an opera house – and Wagner is primarily an opera composer – but in years past, he regularly played complete Wagner operas in
concert with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, performances which have
become the stuff of legend in Holland.
What makes van
Zweden’s Wagner great is his command of the musical style. This
conductor knows how to pace the music so that there is an irrefutable logic to
it all. He does not change tempo simply for effect, but rather because and when the music and/or text require it.
Speaking of text, van
Zweden has an uncanny sense of how to balance Wagner’s orchestra so that every
word is clearly heard. I was reminded of how the critics marveled when Karajan conducted Die Walküre at the Met back in the 1960s. They called it a “chamber music
approach” that made the score fresh again. Van Zweden’s Die Walküre had this
clarity too, but not at the expense of the big moments. Here too, van Zweden was
amazing. The climaxes invariably grew organically from mere whispers to
hair-raising explosions, and again - recalling Karajan - while retaining a
rounded blend of sound, especially in the brass.
Lohengrin Preludes Leave Us Wanting More
Van Zweden began the
concert with three orchestral excerpts and each one was given a superb
performance. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin begins with quiet violins in
their highest register. This is difficult music to play in tune and with
sufficient beauty of sound, and many orchestras have revealed their weaknesses
in such passages. These days, the violinists of the Dallas Symphony play
this music with the utmost confidence, as they did this afternoon.
Wagner’s scores are
filled with original touches of orchestration and that is especially true of
Lohengrin. The ethereal string passage at the very beginning is a prime
example but there is, in this piece, also a little master class in how to use cymbals. We all
know they can make a loud and exciting noise, but Wagner had them play softly
– a mere swish in Lohengrin - to contribute a truly 'heavenly' sound.
Wagner uses them both ways in the exquisite Prelude to Act I.
And what can one say
about the overly-familiar Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin? In this performance, van Zweden galvanized his musicians to play as if possessed. It was thrilling! How did he do it? By sheer force of personality, of course, but also by
insisting on rhythmic exactitude, and by adding little crescendi here and there
to sustain the forward motion. Great conducting and great playing. The only
thing wrong with the Lohengrin Prelude to Act III in Dallas last week was that
this music didn’t continue as it does in the complete opera - with the "Bridal
March." Van Zweden left us wanting to hear him conduct more of Lohengrin.
And did I mention
that for these Wagner concerts, the DSO trumpet section was led by a guest of
great distinction, Christopher Martin (Photo: right), principal trumpet of the Chicago
Symphony? The DSO’s superb principal trumpet Ryan Anthony is on leave of
absence due to illness, and other fine trumpeters from around the country are
helping out. Not so long ago, Martin and Jaap van Zweden collaborated in Chicago
on the first performance of Christopher Rouse’s Trumpet Concerto. By all
accounts, it was a great triumph for all concerned.
Finally, to end the
first half of this all-Wagner program in Dallas, we had a performance of the
Prelude to Die Meistersinger. Here again the playing was deeply inspired. Van
Zweden found the perfect tempo, allowing for all the contrapuntal lines to be heard and expressively shaped. The music also had an inexorable forward motion and a dance
quality that wiped away any suggestion of military marches, reminding us that
Die Meistersinger is, after all, a comic opera.
Die Walküre Brings Down the House!
After all this great
music and great playing, I wondered if the second half of the concert might be
a let-down. Not a chance. In fact, in programming the complete first act of Die
Walküre, van Zweden gave the audience an opportunity to dig down even further into the
genius of Wagner. Unlike Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger, Die Walküre makes
extensive use of what Wagner called “leading motives,” or themes associated
with particular characters or ideas in the opera. The way Wagner uses these musical
bits, transforming and combining them, is one of the supreme accomplishments
in the history of music.
For this concert
performance van Zweden chose three nearly-ideal collaborators: Forbis, Melton and Owens. Tenor Clifton
Forbis (Photo: right) is one of foremost interpreters of the role of Siegmund in our time. His
Tristan is equally distinguished, as Dallas music lovers already know, since he
recently sang the role with the Dallas Opera. Mr. Forbis has the further
distinction of being an Associate Professor and Chairman of Voice at the
Meadows School of Music at SMU in Dallas. Soprano Heidi Melton is also a
world-renowned Wagnerian and has often sung at the Met. Bass Eric Owens has
sung Alberich in Wagner's Ring at the Met, and is a veteran of major roles in
works by John Adams.
All three artists contributed significantly to the success of this performance of Die Walküre.
Mr. Forbis shook the rafters with his cries of “Wälse! Wälse” and delivered his lyrical passages with palpable warmth and exquisite beauty. Ms. Melton matched Mr.
Forbis’ ardor, and beauty of sound. Mr. Owens was
appropriately menacing as Hunding.
These three fine
artists combined with conductor Jaap van Zweden to make this a gripping drama
from beginning to end. The lack of sets and costumes was no problem at all for
such charismatic performers, or for the audience. The acting was superb! Totally mesmerizing! Kudos also to the fabulous Meyerson Symphony Center acoustics for authentically registering the rich colors and dynamics of Wagner's music.
The Maestro and DSO's Outstanding Strings
Jaap van Zweden’s
understanding of string instruments is rapidly becoming known to leading
orchestras around the world as they encounter this exceptional conductor for
the first time. Perhaps it is not surprising, considering that he started
playing the violin at the age of 7, studied in New York with the fabled Dorothy
Delay – she also taught Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Sarah Chang, and Nadja
Solerno-Sonnenberg among others – became concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at 19 and concertized extensively as a solo
In this Wagner concert, one marveled at the richness of the
string tone, the variety of bowing techniques, and the range of attack; that is
to say, not every loud chord was played with a whiplash attack. Often the
attack was “spread” in the manner of many European orchestras, thus giving a
more expressive sound to individual chords where appropriate.
The enlarged horn section
had a fine afternoon, with the Wagner tuba contingent led by David Heyde being consistently
in tune, rhythmically incisive and frighteningly loud when necessary.
Three of the Wagner
live performances led by Jaap van Zweden mentioned earlier in this blog are
available as commercial recordings. Lohengrin (QuattroLive) is available either
on CD or DVD, Die Meistersinger (QuattroLive) is available as a CD set, and so
too is Parsifal (Challenge Classics CC72519). They are wonderful performances.
The week before the Dallas Wagner concert
reviewed in this blog Jaap van Zweden was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at
concerts in Berlin and Amsterdam. Van Zweden was invited to fill in at the last
moment for an ailing Mariss Jansons. One of the Berlin performances was
videotaped in HD for the BPO’s Digital Concert Hall. It is available for
viewing for a fee of US$12. If you are interested, go to www.digital concerthall.com. Van
Zweden conducts the BPO in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Brahms Symphony
No. 1. Both performances are excellent.
Labels: Clifton Forbis, Concert_Review, DSO, Heidi Melton, Jaap van Zweden, klassinen musiikki, klassische Musik, musica classica, musique classique, wagner