New works in honor of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
The theme of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s unique concert Thursday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center was clearly “determined women.” Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a world premiere, was followed by Reflection of Justice: An Ode to Ruth Bader Ginsburg by pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who also performed in both pieces.
Mozart’s Overture Figaro wedding reminded us of the strength and cunning of the maid Susanna and Countess Almaviva. We remember a famous and provocative gypsy in three selections of Bizet Carmen.
We have an intermission from Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc opera, The Maid of Orleans. Finally came Wagner’s Overture Flying Dutchman, in which a woman sacrifices herself for the love – and salvation – of the doomed sailor.
The Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Opera have both become leaders in the training and promotion of female conductors, composers and administrators. The conductor of this concert was Russian-American Lidiya Yankovskaya, musical director of the Chicago Opera Theater and alumnus of the Hart Institute for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera.
The 75 minute program was an interesting intellectual construct and the audience was clearly enthusiastic. Was it a completely satisfying artistic experience? Well …
Zwilich, now 82, was one of the first American female composers regularly commissioned and performed by the best orchestras, chamber groups and soloists. She was also the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Biegel persuaded the DSO and other funders to commission this tribute to the late Supreme Court justice. Seventeen minutes long, in three movements, it is composed for mezzo-soprano, piano and orchestra.
Texts for Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg are mainly by Lauren K. Watel, with a few quotes from Justice itself. They speak of Ginsburg’s strength and determination, from her early years to her long and distinguished career, to promote the equality of women and, indeed, the dignity of all Americans.
The words don’t sing exactly, but the vocal writing is quite natural. The orchestra comments in cinematic gestures. I never understood the raison d’être of the rather jazzy middle movement.
Denyce Graves, who performed at the Ginsburg Memorial Ceremony at the United States Capitol last year, delivered her lines in authoritative tones and generally clear diction, from the rich swells to the powerful chest voice. In an unusually disorganized program book – there was no Zwilich biography – it took me a while to find at least some of the texts.
Biegel played as if he believed in every note. Yankovskaya and the orchestra did what they could with something hard to imagine having an afterlife.
Biegel’s five-minute piece for piano and orchestra, written by Harrison Sheckler, is mostly dreamlike impressionist, with more than a little Copland in its DNA. It does reach a few highlights on the big screen, but the piano has the last quiet words. It was nothing if not pleasant.
The Mozarts, Bizets, Tchaikovsky and Wagner were notable primarily for being loud – the Wagner very loud, except in a curiously drawn-out introspective section. Yankovskaya brought out some elegant wind lines from Mozart. Carmen, a veteran on the opera stages, Graves played rather loose with rhythms, sometimes even heights, in the Habanera.