Dallas Symphony Pays Tribute to JFK with New Work by Conrad Tao
The concert opened with a 17-minute piece by 19-year-old pianist-composer, Conrad Tao (photo: right). The title of the piece comes from JFK's inaugural address (1961). In that speech the new president compares the world today with the way it was when the country was founded. Kennedy states that today man has both the power to eradicate poverty, and the power to destroy mankind itself. Which is it going to be? Kennedy expresses great optimism that Americans will choose a path toward greater freedom, creativity and peace in the world. A short time later JFK’s optimism and judgment were sorely tested during the Cuban missile crisis; his steady resolve and restraint averted what might have been a nuclear conflict.
Then there was the video that accompanied the music - incoherent in itself, with little obvious connection to the music – which apparently was not part of the original commission and was conceived long after the music had been written. The executive producer of this video was Peter J.G. van Ingen, who also produced this season’s imaginative and expertly directed short video previews of DSO concerts, featuring Maestro van Zweden talking about the music programmed for each evening. As good as the previews were, the JFK assignment must have been a greater challenge, as in this video Mr. van Ingen offered us little more than a collage of news photos and films from the period, assembled in a way that did little to enhance our understanding of the terrible event, JFK or Mr. Tao’s score. The succession of today’s faces, filmed in color, at the end of the video suggested what? Diversity? We haven’t forgotten? The world is very different now? A bit of “today” tacked on to the end of a jumbled vintage collage – incongruous, at best!
An Exquisite Collaboration
The new Tao piece was followed by a perennial favorite, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, featuring Joshua Bell (photo: right), one of the most popular classical artists before the public today. Bell was in great form and with van Zweden and the DSO as sensitive collaborators, the performance was wonderful. Under van Zweden’s baton, the solo violin could always be heard and phrasing in the orchestra superbly complemented the poetry of Bell’s performance. Rarely have I heard the solo part so perfectly integrated with the orchestral accompaniment!
Finally, van Zweden conducted the longest piece on the program, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. I have never heard a performance of the Eroica played without trumpets - the piece is simply unimaginable without them. Had I not seen the two DSO trumpeters sitting at the back of the orchestra, I might have thought they had forgotten to participate; never once in the performance did van Zweden allow them to play more than mezzo forte. I have no idea why van Zweden took this approach but for me it robbed the climaxes of much of their elemental power and majesty.
In Case You Hadn't Heard...
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.”