DALLAS This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is joining the great national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The event has special meaning for Dallas, of course, so it is fitting that the program is a little more elaborate than usual. There are two masterpieces plus two pieces written specifically with the death of the president in mind.
One of them is Conrad Tao’s The World Is Very Different Now, which was commissioned by the DSO especially for the occasion and which received its world premiere Thursday night by the orchestra with Jaap van Zweden conducting.
It’s appropriate that Tao is still a teenager (he’ll be 20 in June) since Kennedy and his administration were known for the youthful spirit they projected.
Tao is quite a talented pianist and, judging by the new composition, is gifted as a composer as well. His work, whose title is a line from a Kennedy speech, is remarkably atmospheric, creating shifting moods that arguably reflect the atmosphere of a world that Tao himself never actually experienced.
Strangely enough, the work is never truly funereal. There are haunting passages that are strikingly appealing, though there are few, if any, sustained, well-defined melodic lines. Instead the work draws listeners by creating moods and with remarkable orchestral color.
A video is projected above the stage, with scenes from JFK’s life, aerial shots of Washington and Dallas, assassination material including scenes that most of the audience will have seen on TV during the past week. It draws attention away from the music.
Near the end there is a series of video “portraits” of what appear to be ordinary citizens. Although striking, one can only guess what they signify.
The audience was attentive and, at the end, gave Tao’s work sustained and enthusiastic applause.
The other commemorative work was Darius Milhaud’s Murder of a Great Chief of State, a brief composition that was written in one day, Nov. 25, 1963, with Kennedy in mind.
This one was funereal, with mournful strings creating a kind of threnody. It, too, was enthusiastically received by the large audience, many of whom were children.
The two familiar masterworks, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell as the soloist, and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, received magnificent performances. Van Zweden took the Eroica at an unusually brisk pace, which was all to the benefit of the work.