Dallas — Dallas' Orchestra of New Spain specializes in Baroque music from Hispanic countries, both Spain and the New World. Thus it was only natural that on Oct. 15, in the ballroom of the Hilton Dallas/Park Cities, it should perform the very British Façade—An Entertainment, poems by Edith Sitwell set to music by William Walton, with a 1920s ambiance.
Wait, what? Yes, with modern instruments—including a saxophone, no less—and replete with audience members in 1920s-themed garb, this was not the Orchestra of New Spain's usual oeuvre. Nor was it the group's usual performance space—this is an orchestra more accustomed to the vaulted ceilings of local churches than the crown moldings and rather-the-worse-for-wear carpets of a local Hilton.
However, ONS performed the piece again Oct. 18 at the McNay Museum in San Antonio in conjunction with its exhibit of later works of Joan Miró, so there was method in the considerable madness.
The Dallas show's small audience clearly enjoyed Walton and Sitwell's piece, and no wonder. It is fun and quirky, using quotations from a variety of other pieces, from traditional dance forms to Rossini's Overture to William Tell. In fact, it is odd enough that on first hearing, many critics loathed it, calling it "drivel" and "relentless cacophony." But almost a century later, it seems like a fast-paced, lighthearted romp, a series of musical miniatures set to poetry that is in itself musical, with words seemingly chosen more often for their sounds than for their meanings.
Written for six instruments and reciter, the work is less a narrated piece in the conventional sense than one that uses the speaker as a sort of percussion instrument, with the text of
Sitwell's poems in a jazzy counterpoint to Walton's quirky music. WRR radio personality
Nancy Brunson and baritone Edward Crafts provided lively, energetic and well-timed
readings. The six members of the ensemble are all capable players who brought verve and whimsy to the proceedings.
However, the version of Façade (there are several) presented in Dallas was not long enough to comprise an entire concert program. Recognizing that, Wilkins and company attempted to fill out the program by, at the beginning, performing two of the selections twice, one without text at all, and one with the text and the music separately. This seemed unnecessary, although the two short pieces by Debussy and Honegger performed by flutist Julee Kim Walker were a pleasant enough addition.
Wilkins also talked overmuch—the performance was set to start at 7 p.m. but there was not a note of music until 7:20. (And the references to "Edith and Walton" were cringeworthy. Please, "Sitwell and Walton," or even "Dame Edith and Sir William," though that seems a bit odd on this side of the pond.)
Orchestra of New Spain's foray into modernism was an interesting experiment that with some minor tweaking and some expansion into full concert length could be worthy of further exploration. This is a piece that is seldom performed and takes a particular set of personalities as much as musical gifts to pull it off. In that regard, the evening was a success.