Being single isn’t really all that cool. There’s freedom to be had and you can choose to get off with any number of people without being held responsible to society’s pressure to live monogamously and you can watch whatever you want on TV or whatever, but for the most part it isn’t nearly as appealing as those who are in long-term relationships want it to be. That isn’t to suggest that it’s a completely lost cause, though, because tied into the whole idea of freedom is the Southwest Airlines notion of feeling free to move about the country. Last month I visited a friend in Atlanta, enjoyed a weekend of good company, football, and the best burger in America. Next month I have a train trip into the heart of what is sure to be a blindingly cold Chicago to hear my first ever live Bruckner performance (how I’ve come this far without hearing any live Bruckner says something about both myself AND Bruckner, I think). This past weekend marked a return to the place that spawned my singlehood some 7 months ago: Dallas, Texas, home of USCIS Basic Training, a repulsive professional football team, and a top-15 American orchestra playing in one of the most notable halls in the country.
I remember hearing about Meyerson when I was in high school – it opened in 1989 to great acclaim and remains among the finest concert halls in the country. It’s located in the heart of downtown, surrounded by a whole lot of other buildings with a bunch of glass and metal and shit. Once you step inside, you realize that adage about everything being bigger in Texas is not just a wildly untrue bullshit philosophy that drives many of us non-Texans completely fucking insane, but really and truly a way of life. The lobby is astoundingly huge and has an interesting aesthetic, like the most elegantly lit Amtrak station North America has to offer.
My good friend and colleague joined me for the proceedings and we started with a pre-concert cup of coffee (which was delicious) and sat at a table for 8 that presumably encouraged patrons to sit down and talk to one another. I’m not opposed to this type of idea normally, but after sitting on the sidelines for a conversation between an older couple and a couple who were both in the Air Force (where I imagine the wife must have “learned her place” because her husband would talk over her like she wasn’t saying anything…it was appalling) that delved into politics and led to us being cornered into disclosing where we work and ultimately being “thanked for our service,” it was mercifully time for the show to start.
Jaap van Zweden is the first conductor I’ve ever seen who actually might look slightly better in person than in photos, to his credit. So often the photos that you see in programs are doctored to Kardashian levels so that you’re surprised when it turns out that Valery Gergiev looks less like a deeply insightful Russian man and more like someone who should definitely be on SOME kind of registry. But van Zweden looked just like his pictures: a middle-aged bald dude with big ears, nothing more, nothing less. It was refreshing, as stupid as this entire paragraph sounds. With that in mind, I’ll attempt to turn things around with a brief comment on his overall technique, which I would say is as close to Solti as we’re going to get in this post-alive-Solti world in which we sadly must endure. He doesn’t jerk around quite as intensely, and his pattern is infinitely more recognizable, but it was pretty noticeable to me. And to van Zweden’s great credit, I found his music-making to be equally as engaging as Solti during his best moments.
The program opened with Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Sinfonia da Requiem. I’m an absolute teenage-girl-level fan of this piece, particularly the opening movement. It’s unrelenting intensity boils over into what I would say, had I a gun to my head, is my single favorite moment in all of music: the crushing tidal waves of major and minor chords and the pulsing strings cresting and nadiring above the sustained major chords in the winds that close the first movement and form the bridge to the second. The buildup to this moment was pretty good all told, but I felt like there was a little left on the table and the resulting climax was perhaps a bit underwhelming, though still chill-inducing. It really is impossible for this moment to be anything other than fucking amazing, but I guess my expectations were through the roof. No matter though, because the second movement was like a dream matchup for this conductor and orchestra, and they played the living shit out of it, furiously stampeding through everything at a breakneck pace. This contrasted beautifully with the finale, which was superbly crafted, delicate, and supremely powerful in the explosion of orgasmic majesty that is the movement’s center. All told it was a satisfying performance, even if it failed ever so slightly to live up to my surely unfair expectations.
Following the Britten and the shuffling of deck chairs, a smaller force returned for Brahms’ Symphony no. 3, completing one of the weirder first halves I’ve personally been privy to (though nothing will ever top the performance in Tacoma a few years back where Brahms’ Requiem comprised the first half of a performance that ended with the second Daphnis et Chloe Suite). On the plus side, nobody should give a shit about weird programming when the performance is this good, and I certainly didn’t. This was nothing short of the single best Brahms 3 I’ve ever heard. The tempi were aggressive but controlled, the colors were radiant, the pacing and structure were ideal, I mean this thing was good. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to single out one musician in a performance this superlative, but I can’t help myself and I don’t give a shit about sense anyway. My inner 16-year-old (not to be confused with the 16-year-old’s that I’ve eaten) was awoken thanks to principal horn David Cooper, who unleashed hellbound fury upon us all with a superhuman effort that, to my ears, gave the performance the extra sizzle that catapulted it to the stratosphere. There was a time, before I really began being interested in orchestral music, that I zeroed in on the horn parts (which is natural for a young musician, of course), and I found myself occasionally drifting that way during certain spots, especially in the finale. Cooper, from my vantage point, had the look of someone who thinks very highly of himself, moving with a persistent confidence bordering on cockiness that would probably be unforgivably annoying if he didn’t back it up and then some (I should point out that this is simply a visual assessment…I’ve never hung with Mr. Cooper and there’s a greater than likely chance he is a terrific dude, but he’s got mad swag for real.). Seriously, he was baller as fuck.
After intermission, violinist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra for a performance of the Rolls Royce of all concerti, the Violin Concerto by Brahms. It was a good if not great performance, though this again is likely a product of my perhaps unrealistic expectations. If you’ll allow me one of my patented sports digressions and comparisons (and you kinda have to considering this amazing product is completely free of charge!), my mind kept coming back to something I saw last week during a random night of flipping through NBA League Pass. Bear with me y’all.
Kevin Durant is widely accepted as being the second best basketball player on the planet right now. He has won three scoring titles, he carried his team to a Western Conference Championship two seasons ago, he plays for the US Olympic team, and he is by all accounts a hell of a decent guy. His offensive game is otherworldly – he consistently shoots around 50% from the field, 40% from 3, and 90% from the free throw line – and he is a athletic freak at 6’10” with handles. He is still young and it is overwhelmingly likely that by the time his career is finished he will win multiple championships and become a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
And yet the gap between him and the first best basketball player on the planet might as well be the size of the Pacific Ocean. I was struck when watching Oklahoma City playing last week at how impressive Durant was, but then I watched Miami play. Lebron James is on a level no one else is actually capable of reaching at this time. Everything he does on the court demands your attention. When he’s running the point, you watch him. When he’s off the ball, you watch him. When he’s playing defense, you watch him. He is operating at such a ludicrously high level that you’re simply left waiting for the next amazing thing to happen. There are a host of wonderful players in the NBA who have star power and truly unique talents: Durant’s all-around offensive game, Ricky Rubio’s court vision, Stephen Curry’s unfathomable shooting ability, Blake Griffin’s inability to play any way other than recklessly entertaining. And yet none of them, as supremely talented as they are, command your utmost focus and attention at all times like Lebron does.
I remember the first time I heard Gil Shaham live and in person, in the prison auditorium that is the old Lyric Theater here in Kansas City. He was performing the Barber Violin Concerto, and the sound that erupted from his violin on his first entrance was astounding. It contained so much warmth and depth and energy and DRIVE, and up until that point I didn’t really think a violin was capable of that. Everything about his sound and his musicianship was like Lebron on the court: demanding of your attention. You couldn’t escape it if you tried, and why the fuck would you want to?
Ms. Steinbacher is a terrifically good violinist. She played with a very elegant and refined sense of the Brahms Concerto, and was in complete control at all times. There were many outstanding moments, not the least of which was the first movement cadenza, which she fucking crushed. But that extra gear, that indescribable feeling that “you must pay attention to every single God damn thing that is happening with me right now” was not there. And I’m not sure it can be. I’ve had the great good fortune of hearing many of the world’s finest solo violinists and only one possessed that ability. It didn’t remove the ability to enjoy what was overall a tremendous performance that unequivocally deserved the rich ovation it was granted, but it also left me with an appreciation for those incredibly rare moments when we get to experience something at its apex.
This concert did provide that experience for me in the form of the Brahms Symphony. And it was part of a terrific day, filled with time spent with dear friends, coffee, great conversation, perfect weather, and some of the best music that exists. In spite of everything that Dallas sort of means to me on some level now, none of that shit mattered on Saturday 16 November 2013. Thank you to everyone who helped make that one of the very greatest days I’ve had in God knows how long. I’ll remember it for a long ass time.