An evening with Sir James

February 24, 2007

In addition to having a faculty position at Texas Woman’s University, Diane joined its flute choir last year. Just last week, she went to San Antonio to play at a music educators’ conference. This Friday, she performed in the atrium of Dallas’ Meyerson Center prior to a concert featuring renowned flautist Sir James Galway.

The featured event did not begin until 8:00, but we arrived at 6:00. This meant navigating the so-called “Mixmaster” near downtown Dallas, a formidable series of interchanges that includes I-30 and I-35E, as well as the starting points of U.S. 75 and I-45 (the Texas-only interstate route that connects Dallas and Houston, with Galveston marking its terminus). Miraculously, we made our way to a parking garage near the Meyerson, and we found out way to the east atrium where the flute choir held its rehearsal.

While waiting for the flute choir performance to start, I had to figure something to do for an hour or so. I wandered the atrium, taking in the panoramic views of skyscrapers and construction cranes as the sky turned from gray to indigo. Prior to that, however, I flipped through the program. It contained a few interesting features, including a piece about 15 major conductors of the past and their best recordings. I noted a few absences, such as Karl Bohm and Sir Georg Solti, but such lists always have a subjective element. Amidst the extended pharmaceutical ads, along with the single-page glossies for Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, and Damani (with Gwyneth Paltrow smiling in sepia), I learned more about the concert itself.

I already knew about Galway’s appearance, which constituted the centerpiece of the concert. As a pleasant surprise bonus, however, the concert also commemorated the centennial of the birth of Franz Waxman. The name might not sound familiar to many, but those who appreciate classic movies know him best as one of film’s greatest composers. Born into a Jewish family in Germany, Waxman (or Wachsmann) started his work with film music as the orchestrator and conductor for the score from The Blue Angel. The rise of Hitler drove Waxman away from Germany, but opportunity drove him to Hollywood, where he stayed until his death in 1967. Over the course of his career, Waxman received 12 Academy Award nominations. He also became the first composer to win two years in a row (1950 and 1951 for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun). In addition to his work as a film composer, Waxman started the Los Angeles Music Festival, where he oversaw a number of premiers of works by a broad range of composers.

After wandering the atrium for a while, I found a table near the flute choir and had a seat. Two other couples eventually gathered at my table, including an odd pairing of what looked like Lou Dobbs and opera singer Gwyneth Jones. The program for the flute choir did not list pieces played, but their performance ended with “A Celtic Celebration,” no doubt a tribute to the featured performer. With fifteen minutes to spare before the concert, Diane and I wound our way towards the very top of the Meyerson center and found our seats.

The concert began with two pieces by Waxman. The first came from a film called Prince Valiant. As one would expect, Waxman’s music evokes a heroic mood, with orchestration tricks reminiscent of the hyper-Romanticism of such composers as Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar. Listening to Valiant, I thought of Strauss’ Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), as well as Elgar’s Alassio (In the South). Before I lose too many of you who don’t know much about such compositions, keep in mind that John Williams uses similar tricks to create such chest-swelling moods. If the music from Star Wars pleases your ears, the Valiant score (as well as the aforementioned Strauss and Elgar pieces) would not seem much of a stretch. In fact, don’t be surprised if you end up liking them even more.

Following Valiant, the orchestra played the “Ireland” movement from the score of Billy Wilder’s film The Spirit of St. Louis. I did not find it quite as engaging as Valiant, but it still conjured up visions of flying, as well as stereotypical visions of a pastoral Ireland (which would probably seem quite tempting after a day of crossing the Atlantic in a solo plane). Naturally, after that piece, Galway himself appeared. Since the concert was part of the Dallas Symphony Pops series, he did not play “serious” pieces. Nevertheless, Galway noted with more than a bit of blarney that Mozart and Bach came up with the first two pieces (“Loch Mozart” and “Badinereelerie”) after trips both made to Ireland. The first portion of the concert ended with him accompanying Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayane.

During the intermission, Diane and I hauled to and from the gift shop for a CD that we would have Galway autograph. Immediately after getting drinks, the warning bell went off for seating. We frantically made our way to the top again, finding our seats just as the conductor came out to conduct the orchestral suite from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

As his biography indicates, Waxman actually played in night clubs and a jazz band during the 1920s. As the fictional Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) own peak of fame occurred around that time, Waxman incorporates such sounds into the film’s score. With its portrayal of Desmond’s descent into madness, the Sunset suite contrasts quite starkly with Valiant. As Ravel deconstructed the waltz in La Valse, Waxman throws in a tango that collapses into overblown, self-aggrandizing parody. He also draws upon some of the grimmer aspects of German Romanticism, with nods to Mahler and (most obviously) Strauss. One can plainly discern Waxman’s allusions to the ominous woodwind trill from the latter’s opera Salome, the part that Desmond desires to play for her “comeback” role. (In fact, Billy Wilder actually played the “Dance of the Seven Veils” while filming Desmond’s descent down the grand staircase in her mansion.) Naturally, I lapped the whole thing up, especially since I could hear the music live. It actually gave me clearer insight into how the music should sound, especially since I have experienced it with the limitations of sound quality circa 1950. I also considered the apt timing of playing the suite from Sunset Boulevard, with the media close-ups of the Anna Nicole Smith debacle and Britney Spears’ own meltdown.

The Waxman pieces concluded with “Ride of the Cossacks” from the historical epic Taras Bulba. It put me in mind of “Sabre Dance” (probably because it was performed earlier in the evening), as well as Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. Mind you, I do not wish to make Waxman sound like a plagiarizer. In fact, I believe that the best film composers allude to previously-composed pieces as a nod to those who enjoy classical music. Some look down on John Williams for this, but I have heard quite a few people say that Williams’ scores actually got them interested in classical music. In fact, along with my mother playing it when I was a child, I attribute my love of classical music to growing up with films containing Williams’ scores.

With a great evening of Waxman, I can only hope that 2011 or 2012 will see a centenary commemoration of Bernard Herrmann, yet another great cinematic composer (with a career spanning from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver).

After the Waxman pieces, Galway came out again. This time, he appeared with his wife Jeanne to play movements from “The Magic Flutes,” a kind of homage to Mozart. Following that, Galway himself accompanied the theme from “The Pink Panther,” then picked up his pennywhistle for three more Mancini pieces. The concert officially ended with “Baby Elephant Walk,” but Galway came out yet again to play a few more pieces by the great Irish composers Traditional and Anonymous. Seeing Galway work with the audience, I think he could have had a great career as either a storyteller or a comedian. It was good to see that Galway could combine such talents with his own expertise as a flautist, and that he could temper his prestigious talent with his down-to-earth sense of humor.

After the concert, Diane and I stood in line to have the CD booklet autographed. The line seemed formidable at first, but we finally reached the table with Sir James and Lady Jeanne after about 20 minutes. We did not bring a camera, but I did have my camera phone; for once, I found a practical use for it. When Diane’s turn came, she mentioned that she played flute, and that the flute choir had performed earlier. James did not know about it, and he sounded disappointed about not being able to see them. When Diane went over to Jeanne, I stepped out of the line to take a picture of them behind the table. I took the first photograph too early, with Jeanne and Diane looking at me, and James signing an autograph for the next person in line. As I saved the first picture, Jeanne said, “James…” to get her husband’s attention. For a few seconds, the world’s greatest flautist looked in my direction as I fiddled with my cell phone to get another shot. I finally got a picture of the Galways and Diane all looking at the camera, thanked them both, and we made our way to the parking garage.

After seeing Bono speak at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council last May, we went to the Cheesecake Factory a few miles north of downtown Dallas. We did the same thing after seeing Galway. This indicates that Diane and I have developed a bit of ritual: after seeing a great Irishman in Dallas, we go to the Cheesecake Factory just a few miles north of downtown for a late dinner. (Perhaps we will see Anonymous or Traditional next.) We got there around 11 PM last night, and we finally got home to west Fort Worth at 1 AM. I had been up a while, but the concert (as well as post-dinner coffee) left me wired. As you can see from what I have written, it might take me a while before I finally wind down.

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