Dallas — Many orchestras are striving to find new ways to attract younger audiences to concerts. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Remix series, now in its third season, seems to be designed to do expressly that. The concerts are short—Saturday’s was not much more than an hour—with no intermission, a coupon for a free glass of wine or beer included with admission, and on this particular weekend, a s’mores bar and a Guitar Hero game set up on the second level of Dallas City Performance Hall. Even the orchestra’s clothing choices were modestly unconventional—instead of tailcoats and gowns, they were asked to wear black with a splash of color, so some opted for colorful ties, scarves, or heels.
The entire program, conducted by Brett Mitchell, consisted of contemporary music; the oldest piece on the program was Polish film composer Wojciech Kilar’s appealing, minimalist “Orawa,” while the big draw for many contemporary music lovers was Adam Schoenberg’s “Finding Rothko,” which evokes four paintings from a Mark Rothko exhibit, demonstrating the complexity within simplicity in Rothko’s work in layered harmonies, much like the layers of paint Rothko uses, I envision. The American Schoenberg, who is only in his mid-30s, is becoming increasingly prominent, for good reason. This is a piece worth many more listens.
Also a special draw for these concerts: Bryce Dessner, of the indie band The National, composed two of the pieces, performed in one, and greeted fans afterward, as did many of the DSO musicians.
Dessner is the sort of musician that can help bridge the gap—nay, chasm—between classical music and the rest of the musical world. Since many young people do not see classical music as relevant to them—and in many cases, they’re probably right—classical music has to create relevance if it is to survive as a legitimate art form, not just a historical relic.
Dessner’s primary fame comes from his band, which is known for its dark, ambiguous lyrics. He has also recorded with the Kronos Quartet and composed music for the 2015 film The Revenant. His orchestral music is genre-blending, some of it using electric guitars to, as he puts it, create a texture or atmosphere much like that of the harp in conventional classical composition. In large part, he succeeded in his goals. The Dallas Symphony performed one piece of Dessner’s that uses a traditional orchestral instrumentation, “Lachrimae.” Dessner asserted that his influences for the piece were Dowland and Bartók. Initially, the piece seemed to lack direction, but then congealed into its rhythmically propulsive center. I didn’t hear as much of either Dowland or Bartók as I did echoes of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” both in the somber subject and in the way the string sections were used as a set of individual players rather than a collective, with string players throughout each section having different parts from their fellows.
In many respects, “Lachrimae” was more engaging than “St. Carolyn by the Sea,” the piece that featured Dessner and Travis Andrews on electric guitars. “St. Carolyn by the Sea” is based on a hallucinatory section of Jack Kerouac’s book Big Sur. The guitars indeed, although sitting in front of the viola section as if they were soloists, did blend with the rest of the orchestra. This was not a concerto for two electric guitars, but rather a reimagining of the role electronic instruments could take in a symphony orchestra. This is classical music, then, for the twentysomethings who rediscover Kerouac every generation, and if they then go on to be fans of the classical genre, more power to them. We need them.