Dallas — The Dallas Chamber Symphony and conductor Richard McKay scored three big wins on March 23 at Moody Performance Hall, with a program featuring an impressive and moving new work by a Dallas-based composer, followed by an iconic classic of American music and the encore of a film score premiered five years ago by the orchestra.
Kimberly Osberg is a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and a graduate of Luther College in Iowa and Indiana University. Her Rocky Summer, a tone poem featuring a projected text by the composer, describes, in words and music, an ill-advised but ultimately triumphant mountain hike at a key moment in her (still young) life.
I’ll admit I was at first dubious of the projected text—interjecting spoken or written text into a musical composition is a time-honored but risky proposition. I was soon won over, however, by the perfect match of Osberg’s sometimes self-deprecating, often evocative descriptions and her shimmering orchestration and melodic instincts. Osberg takes the trend for intensely colorful orchestration, now flourishing among American composers, and distills it for a small chamber orchestra, bringing an unexpected array of beautifully organized musical sounds. Conductor McKay and the orchestra brought a fine precision, color, and impetus to the 13-minute-long score, with its primordial echoes and wonderfully suspenseful climax.
The ensemble of 14 musicians exactly matched (and not by coincidence) the orchestration of the next work on the program, the chamber orchestra version of Aaron Copland’s Suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring from 1944. Copland’s music, and, for that matter, the ballet it was written to accompany, represent an urbane, nostalgic view of America’s past; Brooklyn-born Copland managed to capture, in resonant harmonies and unpretentious melodies, a sublime authenticity echoing the natural grandeur of our continent and the gritty determination of our forebears.
In spite of the work’s immense popularity in the version for full orchestra, a live chamber performance is a relative rarity. But in a performance by chamber orchestra, the lean resonance of Copland’s counterpoint, and the sometimes surprising but always just-right harmonic shifts comes through with admirable clarity in this tighter, more intimate version. Once again, conductor McKay shepherded a crisp performance, achieving the quintessentially American grandeur Copland aimed for here, from the gradually radiant introduction to the famous and beloved Variations on the sturdy Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” at the climax of the work. Most of the instruments get a shot in the spotlight in this version of Appalachian Spring, and all performed with requisite virtuosity.
One of the most admirable contributions of the Dallas Chamber Symphony to the regional music scene has been the commissioning and performance of new orchestral scores for silent film classics. This concert brought a revival of a score by British composer Rolfe Kent, written for and premiered by the Dallas Chamber Symphony in 2014 to accompany Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach’s 1919 short comedy feature Bumping into Broadway. While Lloyd indulged in nonstop slapstick and hapless romance on the screen, Kent (who is best known as the composer of the theme song of the television series Dexter and the score for the original movie version of Legally Blonde) provided a colorfully jazzy accompaniment enlivened by Gershwin-esque tunefulness and pungent orchestration.
The one drawback to the concert came in the form of 25 minutes of speeches from the stage before the music began. A pitch for donations with a clip of the orchestra’s educational programs is a necessity in the current economic reality. And, though this listener is not usually particularly thrilled to hear a composer speaking ahead of his or her own music, Osberg’s emotional and deeply personal description of the birth and inspiration of Rocky Summer was disarmingly effective. A talk from a representative of the Dallas Morning News including a pitch for subscriptions was an odd and irritating delay, however, and definitely belonged in the program book, not on the stage in front of an audience that came to hear music.