On the Dotted Line

03.27.12
Jamie Bernstein
TheaterJones

By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performs works based on Norton Juster's children's books, with narration from Jamie Bernstein.

Dallas — Among the many wonderful things that a symphony orchestra brings to its community, the family-oriented concerts have to be at the top of the list. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra does a particularly good job in this endeavor by combining the actual concert with fun activities beforehand. The children can attend an "instrument petting zoo" where a staff of volunteers helps them try out some instruments. They can blow a trumpet or flute, hit a drum or even scratch around on a violin. This is very popular; a big hit with the kinds, and is great fun to watch.

On Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center, the DSO added another shinning star to the proceedings by playing a world premiere of a new composition for its youngest audience, thereby fulfilling two of its mandates at the same time: promoting new music and educational outreach.

Robert Xavier Rodríguez, a superb composer who writes in a highly accessible yet fresh musical voice, is one of our local musical treasures. His mastery of the craft of composition is evident in all of his works, but they are not academic, overly intellectual or dry. He never tosses in a complex fugue or similar virtuoso bit of compositional flash without a good musical reason to do so. Further, he is a Professor of Music at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he holds an Endowed Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies and is Director of the Musica Nova Ensemble.

On this program, the DSO played two of his compositions for narrator and orchestra based on fantastical children's books by Norton Juster, with one narrated by Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein.

A Colorful Symphony (1987) is based on a chapter from Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), in which a boy enters a magical land where an orchestra and its conductor play color into the world each day. Rodríguez's music takes full advantage of the orchestral palate, using one physical sense, hearing, to create another, seeing. He accomplishes this with great skill.

For example, his creation of the rainbow is a tour de force. Jamie Allen, Education Director for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, was marvelous as the narrator. In fact, he did more than simply narrate, he gave a stage performance that demonstrated some impressive acting chops.

The new piece on the program was not really new, just re-orchestrated version of a chamber work, which was commissioned by the Dallas-based contemporary music group, Voices of Change, in 2005. Hearing it, it is obvious that Rodríguez gleefully took on setting of Juster's The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and happily revisited it for this expanded version.

This is one of those rare children's books that can be equally enjoyed by adults. The text actually exists on two levels at once and everyone in the audience on Sunday, young and old, was enchanted.

When we first learn about the hopeless love that the line has for the dot, music buffs recognized a quote from Wagner's opera about a similar situation, Tristan and Isolde. Not recognizing this musical "in" joke didn't detract from anyone's enjoyment, but it brought a special smile to those who did. There were other similar musical quotes and references cleverly worked into the texture for the amusement of those that discover them. This is a piece that, while excellent for its original purpose of being on a family concert, would also fit on a regular subscription concert without being out of place. Its profound message is is presented with charm and grace. My favorite line is "Freedom is not a license ?for chaos," but there are many similar thought-provoking statements throughout the slim volume.

The story of the line's herculean efforts to improve himself, so as to be worthy of the dot's affection, is a brilliant parable teaching the importance of self-improvement and the value of intellectual curiosity. The poor slovenly squiggle is unmotivated and mentally lazy; willing to accept an unorganized and cluttered life because it is the easiest path. The straight line learns to bend, to break out of his comfort zone, which opens him to the glory that geometry can bring. Having the artwork from the book projected above the orchestra was a big help. It is eloquent in its own right and the complex geometrical drawing that the line presents at the height of his accomplishment are a wonder to behold.

Jamie Bernstein did a terrific job as the narrator. Her father was conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and her mother was Chilean actor Felicia Cohn Montealegre, so her background in music and the theater is apparent and naturally occurring. She brought a different voice to, and created a vivid personality for, each of the three characters in the story. Her "Edith Bunker" voice for the dot was especially funny. At one point, the text has a series of adjectives for the creations the line creates (complex, dazzling, clever, mysterious). Ms. Bernstein pronounced each one of them in such a descriptive way that her vocal onomatopoeia brought a smile.

The program also included two of Leonard Bernstein's overtures: Candide and West Side Story.

Conductor Richard Giangiulio, who is in his 32nd season as the Music Director of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra, did a fine job. While the Candide overture was rushed, in general, his perky tempi caught the mood of the two of the composer's most popular compositions. The DSO played beautifully and Rodríguez gave many of the principal chairs lots of solo work in both of his compositions. Sitting in the concertmaster's chair, Gary Levinson had the most work to do. The Dot and the Line came across as a mini-violin concerto, with lots of virtuoso passages. Levinson tossed off his difficult part with charm and style, although there are places that Rodriguez's thick orchestration made it hard for him to be heard above the texture.