La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Too Many "f"s in DSO/van Zweden New World Symphony?

Scott Cantrell is the distinguished long-time classical music critic of the Dallas Morning News. He recently wrote an article titled “Let’s go easier on those fortissimos” (January 31, 2014) in which he criticized Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony (DSO) for excessive volume in music by Brahms (Piano Concerto No. 2/Symphony No. 4) and Dvorak (New World Symphony).

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Cantrell’s general point that volume levels in music performance have become excessive. Much of the blame for this phenomenon must go to technology; electronically amplified instruments can produce literally ear-splitting volume. With respect to his particular complaint about volume levels in recent DSO concerts at the Meyerson Symphony Center, however, I beg to differ. While I was not present for any of the concerts he is talking about, I have been in the Meyerson often enough to have well-informed opinions about the hall, the orchestra and the conductor.

First of all, Mr. Cantrell is factually incorrect in saying that "those Brahms and Dvorak scores from the late 19th century have no dynamic marking louder than the traditional fortissimo." For the record, the Dvorak New World Symphony has many fff markings. 

Secondly, the two pieces which mainly concern him - the New World Symphony and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 - have different orchestration: there are no trombones in the Brahms and the two trumpets and timpani are used very sparingly. I can't imagine the climaxes in the Brahms "turbocharged to blasts better suited to Shostakovich." The Dvorak is scored for a bigger orchestra and the composer is obviously aiming for bigger climaxes than was Brahms in the B flat concerto.

Apart from the factual issues and the differences between the two pieces, and while it is historically true that orchestras have gotten louder over the past 200 years, Mr. Cantrell's comments fail to take into account two other major factors: the halls orchestras play in have gotten larger, and orchestras have got to produce more sound to fill them.

To accommodate changes in the size of concert halls, some instruments have become more powerful, and for performances in larger halls the number of players is sometimes increased as well – all of which makes sense. It is absurd to present a string quartet performance in Carnegie Hall - although it is often done today if the market will bear it - and it is just as ludicrous to present so-called "historically-informed" performances in such large halls.

Finally, while Mr. Cantrell often raves about what Jaap van Zweden has achieved in Dallas, in this article he turns intensity - one of van Zweden's greatest strengths - into a negative. Van Zweden is an intense conductor and has the ability to get that intensity from his players. If van Zweden can get "white-hot intensities" from the DSO strings in Brahms' Fourth Symphony, more power to him. That kind of music-making is what makes concert-going special.

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.”

Photo of Maestro Jaap van Zweden in rehearsal with members of the DSO by Marita

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Cette semaine à Montréal : le 3 au 9 février

La musique de Denis Gougeon, jouée par le Quatuor Molinari, sert de trame musicale dans cette rencontre avec la poésie de Baudelaire, Cendrars, Ronsard et Schwitters qu’interprétera la comédienne Danièle Panneton. Elle y joindra un texte de son cru. Maison de la culture Côte-des-Neiges, 7 février, 20h.
 - Renée Banville

De retour d’une importante tournée en Europe, les Violons du Roy célèbrent le 300e anniversaire de la naissance de Gluck et le 250e anniversaire de la mort de Rameau. Dirigés par Bernard Labadie, ils présentent: du premier, le ballet Don Juan et du second, un extrait de son opéra Les Boréades. 7 février, 19 h 30.
- Renée Banville

À l’occasion du 150e anniversaire de naissance de Richard Strauss, l’Orchestre Métropolitain rend hommage au compositeur postromantique allemand. Le premier cor de l’Orchestre, Louis-Philippe Marsolais, sera entendu comme soliste dans le Concerto no 2, un classique du répertoire pour cet instrument. L’OM commémorera aussi Richard Strauss à travers ses Métamorphoses. La 3e Symphonie de Beethoven, l’« Héroique », complète le programme. Maison symphonique, 9 février.
 - Justin Bernard

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This Week in Toronto (Feb. 3 - 9)

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 3 - 9)

- Joseph So

Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, the second production of Canadian Opera Company's winter season, opened last Sunday (Feb. 2) and continues until Feb. 22. It stars Canada's prima donna Adrianne Pieczonka in her first Amelia. Riccardo is American tenor Dimitri Pittas and British baritone Roland Wood is Renato. Former COC Ensemble Studio soprano Simone Osborne is Oscar. Stephen Lord, last in town for Lucia di Lammermoor, conducts the COC Orchestra and Chorus. 
COC's Un ballo in maschera (Act 3) (Photo: Michael Cooper)

I attended the opener and found the musical values to be extremely high, with all principals in great voice and the orchestra in top form. The production has time-shifted to the American South during the Kennedy era, which in itself is not an issue.  After all, Verdi himself changed the location several times due to political considerations, and it is clear that he intended to set the opera roughly at the time of its composition. However, the limitations imposed on staging by the immovable single unit set used for all three acts proved problematic. My full review of the Ballo and Cosi fan tutte will appear in a future issue of the London, UK based Opera magazine. Performances of Ballo this week are on Feb. 5 and 8, while Cosi continues on Feb. 6 and 9, with a special performance featuring artists from the COC Ensemble Studio on Friday Feb. 7. This is a great opportunity to hear the fine voices in the Ensemble. All performances at the Four Seasons Centre.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Soprano Tracy Dahl, the deliciously droll maid Despina in the current run of Cosi fan tutte, is giving a noon hour recital, Songs from the Heart, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on Feb. 4. Liz Upchurch is the collaborative pianist. The program features songs by Purcell, Debussy and Strauss, plus contemporary American composer Lee Hoiby and Canadian composer John Greer.  Program details can be viewed by clicking  Be sure to line up an hour ahead to ensure a seat.  Dahl is also giving a masterclass to voice students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music on Friday Feb. 7 2 - 4:30 pm in the Geiger-Torel Room, Edward Johnson Building on campus. This is under the auspices of the Riki Turovsky Masterclass for Voice. For details, go to

Soprano Tracy Dahl (Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

Given the large ethnic Chinese population (reputedly to be over one million) in the GTA, Toronto Symphony Orchestra has been gearing its programming, and customer service, to this community for some years now. On Monday Feb. 3 7 pm, it is putting on a Chinese New Year Celebration with works by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Dvorak, as well as a slate of Chinese composers including Tan Dun. Conductor Long Yu leads the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and pianist Yuja Wang is among the soloists. This is sure to be an extremely well attended gala event. On Saturday Feb. 8 7:30 pm, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra under the baton of Shalom Bard is performing works by Brahms, Dvorak, and Jeffrey Ryan. 

Soprano Nathalie Paulin

Recitals at Rosedale, a new initiative in the presentation of art songs and arias, is presenting its third concert in its inaugural season, Love...Actually on Sunday Feb. 9 2:30 pm at the Rosedale Presbyterian Church. Soloists are soprano Nathalie Paulin, mezzo Lauren Segal, tenor Zachary Finklestein, and baritone Anthony Cleverton. This new concert series is the brainchild of pianist/coach Rachel Andrist and composer John Greer.  According to the information on the Rosedale Church website, the first half of the program consists of love songs from Beethoven, Bachelet and Quilter and the Schumann Spanisches Liederspiel opus 74. The second half takes a journey through the stages of grief with songs by Faure, Duparc, Liszt, Bolcom and Sondheim. This is a prelude to Valentines Day to come the following week.

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