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End of the Week Roundup

by Jerome Weeks 13 May 2011 7:59 AM

The DSO gets a warm reception at Carnegie Hall (with updated reviews as they come in), Jim Lehrer is stepping down, TITAS presents a world-premiere dance commission tonight and will other Broadway tours come to North Texas? All in today’s roundup.


* UPDATE * HELLO, DSO AT CARNEGIE! — A warm and welcoming reception for the Dallas Symphony’s eighth visit to the New York landmark, this time to present Pulitzer-winning composer Steven Stucky’s August 4, 1964, which the orchestra premiered in Dallas three years ago. The NYTimes‘ Anthony Tommasini found the work about a tough day in the life of LBJ to be “a gutsy, somber concert drama” and the DSO’s performance “vivid, glowing and calmly assured.” Writing for the DMN, Martin Bernheimer of the Financial Times loved them, hated it. “Drawing virtuosic responses from the orchestra and Dallas Symphony Chorus, Jaap van Zweden conducted as if a masterpiece were at hand. Bless him.” TheaterJones felt the audience’s long, standing ovation was well-deserved all-round, while The Oregonian felt the piece was “expertly” played and if some parts lagged, “a central elegy for the orchestra alone unfolded in noble  beauty.” You can judge for yourself: NPR has a podcast of the entire concert.

HELLO AND FAREWELL — Last November, when Jim Lehrer appeared at the Nasher Salon, I asked him about any plans for retirement from anchoring PBS Newshour, plainly hinting that I’d make a perfect replacement. Lehrer said he’s always planned on staying in his seat until he started drooling on camera. Well, sadly, the 76-year-old newscaster who got his start in TV news at KERA has said he will give up Newshour‘s regular anchor’s chair June 6. He’ll still appear on some Fridays. To give some idea of what this means: When Lehrer started as a national TV anchor in 1975, the other anchors were people like Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather. Of that generation, Lehrer has been the last one standing (or sitting) for years now. Even sadder, no one’s called me …

POSSIBILITIES TO CONSIDER –– Earlier this week it was announced that the celebrated drama War Horse will be touring to Dallas. Five other Broadway shows have announced national tours — but without specific dates or locations. So we can speculate about Memphis, The Addams Family, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Sister Act and hope, most especially, for Book of Mormon.

SONG AND DANCE – After our interview with Complexions choreographer Dwight Rhoden aired last week, other stories have popped up, including here and here. You can see footage of Rhoden rehearsing with singer-actors Cedric Neal and Liz Mikel here — they’ll premiere the commissioned work, ‘Testament,” based on Negro spirituals tonight at the Winspear for TITAS’ season closer.

A Fateful Day, Somberly Remembered
By Leslie Kandell
May 13, 2011

NEW YORK — Aug. 4, 1964, was a fateful day for President Lyndon B. Johnson. Two unrelated but equally momentous events — one in violence-torn Southeast Asia, one in the violence-torn American South — required urgent attention from the Oval Office. One changed the course of America’s foreign policy; one inflamed and propelled the civil rights movement. Together, they shaped Johnson’s presidency.

The two searing events, an apparent attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam, and the discovery of the bodies of three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi, coincide in Steven Stucky’s oratorio “August 4, 1964.” Introduced in 2008 by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned it for Johnson’s centennial year, it received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday evening at the Spring for Music festival.

At 70 minutes without intermission, the meaty, controlled work consists of 12 scenes separated by an orchestral interlude. Gene Scheer’s libretto cobbles journal notes, speeches and tapes into a narrative, whose two odd couples — mothers of the slain Andrew Goodman and James Chaney plus Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, form a quartet that sings mostly as two duos.

The performance was preceded by two video clips: Johnson’s television announcement of the sea attack, and Ben Chaney (James’s younger brother, now 59) speaking of events in his life. Projections were clearly visible on the stage’s rear wall, on which the libretto was also shown — a necessity when the text is so important. “It was the saddest moment of my life,” Mrs. Chaney (soprano Indira Mahajan, in Butterfly- Bohème tone that was delicate but sure) sang in the opening. She was joined by Mrs. Goodman, mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson, and their voices blended easily, giving their passages in thirds an old-time sweetness. Both wore 1960s dresses, hats and cheap stockings.

The line about sadness was among their returning refrains. Another came from the Stephen Spender poem: “I think continually of those who were truly great,” a favorite of Goodman’s that his mother pinned on her wall. Still another was McNamara’s pushy, rapid-fire “Mr. President, Mr. President,” crisply delivered by tenor Vale Rideout with unnerving insight.

Baritone Rod Gilfry was a weary Johnson, baffled by events spiraling in a way he had not foreseen. At one point, as Johnson describes a visit to a poor Appalachian family with “skinny, sick” children, he recalls a picture of Jesus on the wall, next to one of John F. Kennedy, and says he felt as if he had been slapped in the face. Kennedy was a tough act to follow, and Gilfry, who is not old enough to have experienced the events, had trouble inhabiting the role.

The structure of the oratorio — scenes, an orchestral interlude, political and nationalist references — suggest Marc Blitzstein’s poignant, accessible “Airborne” Symphony. Entirely tonal, like most film scores, “August 4” contains some chromaticism and colliding notes that used to be called dissonance, and that are followed by glowing string harmony.

Dallas, site of the assassination and LBJ’s home state, brought a full orchestra plus a chorus of 200 to New York. The chorus in this piece, as in Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion, has the role of observer, commentator and participant. Prepared perfectly by Donald Krehbiel, it brought out the score’s close harmony with clean articulation and the blend created by careful choral listening.

Those qualities, as well as across-the-board assurance in orchestra, chorus and soloists surely reflect the skill of Jaap van Zweden, the Dutch-born music director who led the premiere before taking over the Dallas in September 2010. His authority, focused energy and precise attention to instrumental timbre have taken the orchestra to a new level.

The work’s finale was laced with the lament, “So many sons,” tying the two events together in senseless loss of life. The ending’s big chorus was the full Spender poem, somber, with funereal chimes. Some in the audience who had come from Dallas received it again soberly. This rich, thoughtful piece may be too complex, too geographically specific to be picked up by other ensembles, so one hopes that the Dallas Symphony will keep “August 4” in its repertory.

  • No one has called you! You’ve got a great voice and work at KERA. It’s like the song goes in Fiddler; you might need to call them and tell them it’s “Tradition!”