The Dallas Debut of a Deaf Composer’s Symphonic Poem Cycle

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, January 30, 2010
8:00 p.m.

Pinchas Steinberg, conductor

Smetana – Má Vlast (My Fatherland)

Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six tone poems, Má Vlast, takes place in the rolling meadowlands of current day Czechoslovakia and tells the story of the mythic early days of the Czech people and their land, Bohemia. Most of the movements describe the landscape or take the listener on a journey through the countryside, but the third and fifth give the work its drama. The third tone poem, Šárka, is based on a Czech folktale in which a young maiden, betrayed by her lover, exacts her revenge by slaughtering him and his army with the help of a group of warrior women. The fifth movement, Tábor, depicts the fifteenth-century Hussites battling against the Germans for their freedom.

Smetana offers us a beautiful symphonic work that is both traditional and forward-looking for its time, traditional in its nationalism but forward-looking in its diversity. As he aims to incite national pride, Smetana is usually able to stir the emotions without pulling cheap musical tricks. He reveals the diversity of emotion, action, and scenery of the Czech people and their land through swelling melodies, careful melodies, delicate textures, fugal counterpoint, and of course, polkas. Although it skimped on the horns, Má Vlast uses the entire orchestral palette, and its dynamic character is operatic rather than limply pastoral.

Steinberg took the stage and then the microphone before the baton. His long introduction gave a more intimate account of Smetana’s life and the story he tells in Má Vlast. Although Steinberg is a good story-teller, he talked too long. Since Má Vlast was the only work on the program for the evening, there was no short piece at the beginning to buy a moment to seat the latecomers.

Five minutes into the first tone poem, I realized the Steinberg had no music stand in front of him. He conducted the whole work from memory. He used no score. That is when it became clear that Steinberg’s opening monologue was not just a proxy for the “seating music,” but he told the audience what he believed. He is passionate about the piece, and his conducting showed that he feels deeply connected to it.

Steinberg demanded a lot of sound from the DSO, sometimes more than the strings were willing (or able) to give him. He also demanded the other extreme of volume as he hushed certain sections often to allow a surprising counter-melody from across the orchestra to rise up and add another dimension to the music. The polka in Vltava (The Moldau) was delightful thanks to Steinburg’s cheery upbeats and buoyant bass lines. Later in the same movement, the first violins had an intonation problem with the exposed octave jumps. The reeds had similar problems in the chorale section in Šárka.

After the intermission, the fourth movement opened up a window into Smetana’s psyche. Smetana went deaf over night and suffered from a high-pitched tone constantly ringing in his mind. Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Forests and Meadows) is an experiment in counterpoint. Writing multiple overlapping melodies without being able to hear the result is a feat of musical genius. Steinberg did not give the counterpoint of the fourth tone poem a baroque clarity. Instead, it was as if the audience listened through the fog of Smetana’s deafness and experienced the music only as clearly as he ever imagined it.

Tábor, is the best of the six tone poems, the most musically engaging, and the most dramatic without falling into trite patriotism. Blaník, however, is an unfortunate ending to the cycle because the patriotic fervor does not translate well across time and geography.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, the first time that Má Vlast has ever been performed in its entirety in Dallas.

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