The following review was written by Dallas music critic Olin Chism. Scroll down for links to what others are saying.
It’s always risky to predict the fate of a new composition, but August 4, 1964 by Steven Stucky and Gene Scheer packs enough power that an extended series of performances seems a safe bet. The oratorio was premiered Thursday night by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jaap van Zweden.
The work was commissioned by the DSO in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Lyndon Johnson. Stucky composed the music, Scheer wrote the text.
Scheer says he considers LBJ to be a tragic figure, but neither a hero nor a villain. Others, however, may view the new work as a meditation on contrasting positive and negative aspects of the former president. Aug. 4, 1964 happens to be the date when two dominant issues of LBJ’s presidency, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, coincidentally intersected. The Gulf of Tonkin incident marked a major escalation of the Vietnam War, and the bodies of three murdered civil-rights activists were identified. Their disappearance in Mississippi several weeks earlier had accelerated the drive to pass the civil-rights act.
Stucky has done something rather unusual in contemporary music: He has composed a lengthy work for large orchestra and very large chorus, plus four vocal soloists. There must have been several hundred people on the stage and choral terrace of the Meyerson Center. This could have been a group gathered to sing and play the Verdi Requiem.
The four soloists Thursday night (there will be repetitions Friday, Saturday and Sunday) were soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo Kelley O’Connor, tenor Vale Rideout and baritone Robert Orth. The two women sang words of the mothers of two of the murdered volunteers, Rideout took the part of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Orth sang the part of LBJ. Much of the text is actual quotations from the historical record.
Taking a cue from many opera companies, the DSO is projecting the text of the oratorio on a screen above the choral terrance. This significantly enhances the impact of the work.
Stucky’s musical style is considerate of the audience, with appealing melodies and harmonies, but enough astringency to impart a sense of gravitas. His use of the orchestra is highly effective, and I felt that the music for the four soloists, especially the men, projected a distinct sense of individuality. Orth even managed a kind of Texas twang at times — not easy to do when you’re singing.
Van Zweden directed a performance that was both highly dramatic and subtle, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were in fine shape.
Devoting an entire concert to a single, brand-new work takes guts. It’s becoming clear that Van Zweden isn’t your ordinary music director.
What others are saying:
Review from Scott Cantrell of The Dallas Morning News
New York Times piece
New York Times review
New York Times multi-media feature including some rehearsal audio from August 4.