Dallas — The words “fun” and “concert” seem to be diametrically opposed these days. One must ponder the meaning of the universe and the fleeting flame of fame, the grace of genius that ignites a marked mortal, elevating them to an eternal existence in the ether of everlasting eminence.
For some land-sakes-alive fun, you need to be part of the ever-growing audience at the concerts given by the Dallas Chamber Orchestra. Artistic Director and conductor Richard McKay is hitting his stride with this group of elite musicians. Instead of a sparse symphony orchestra, this group now proudly wears the appellation of “chamber.” McKay eschews such lofty aims as described above (the overcrowded world of Brahms, et al, don’t suit him as well anyway) by producing other genres of concerts, at which he excels, that both challenge and delight the soul.
At work is Gnothi seauton, as the Greeks said, and temet nosce in Latin. Or, in the words of that great philosopher Lee Iacocca: “Know yourself, know your business.”
McKay has figured this out.
All this slightly ridiculous verbiage, but purposely in the spirit of the concert, was on practical display on Tuesday at Dallas City Performance Hall.
McKay has staked out a national reputation for commissioning new scores for silent movies and this concert featured his 10th such effort—perhaps his most successful.
The film was a Buster Keaton short, The Goat, with Keaton as writer and star (the title animal is short for “scapegoat”). This was one of his last short films before he moved into feature-length work.
Keaton was an endless font of great comic bits and his writers often lamented that, for once, they couldn’t steal from Keaton. Modern-day audiences will remember his marvelous cameo in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was released shortly after his death in 1966.
Like all of his films, The Goat is filled with one hysterical bit after another in such rapid-fire succession that the laughs never stop. Many are illusions: what you think is a real peril turns out to be something mundane. The crescendo of chase scenes has rarely been topped ever since and the weak ending doesn’t spoil the fun.
Composer Jon Kull crafted one of the best efforts McKay has commissioned so far. In remarks before the screening, Kull said that writing a silent film score was different from contemporary film scores (he works as an orchestrator on big budget films, working with such composers as James Horner and Elmer Bernstein). Here, he remarked, the music is “…the whole ball of wax.” No dialogue and no sound effects require everything to be in the music. This he accomplished with consummate craft and knee-slapping sparkle.
The program opened with two appropriately whimsical pieces that were excellently paired with Keaton and Kull’s pratfalls. The most successful was a polished performance of American composer Paul Moravec’s 2003 Chamber Symphony (written for flute, oboe, horn, violin, cello, piano and percussion). The outer movements pulsed with energy and featured many surprise resolutions on a plain ’ol triad among the musical hijinks. The slow movement oozed through the harmonic thicket like an amoeba, arriving without completely leaving. It is an intricately written piece, showing technical mastery, that never takes itself seriously.
McKay started off with Paul Hindemith’s 1921 Kammermusik No. 1. In the opening remarks McKay said that this music is “…as humorous as a German can be.” While this may be true, and it is, McKay’s performance was too molto serioso and not enough unbeschwert (lighthearted or carefree).
This was probably because of the extreme difficulty of Hindemith’s jaunty score (excellently performed by DCS, by the way), and the eternal lack of adequate rehearsal time, requiring intense concentration from all concerned. But there was nary a much-needed smile to be found—even a reserved German one.
However, none of these critical tut-tuts spoiled the fun of the evening, not even for the critic. The Dallas Chamber Symphony’s ever-increasing audience roared with approval.