Irving — The triumvirate orchestra that is Symphony Arlington, Garland Symphony and Las Colinas Symphony orchestras played a series of identical concerts, one under each name, last weekend. This is how the organization, locally referred to as “Las Garlington,” has long operated. Each month in the season, there is a weekend of performances: Thursday at Arlington Music Hall, Friday at the Patty Granville Arts Center in Garland, and Saturday at Irving Arts Center. The program, musicians, guest artists and even each group’s websites, are exactly the same. As is the music director, Robert Carter Austin. Only the venues and audiences are different.
The review below was seen under the banner of Las Colinas Symphony on Nov. 16. It’s important to note that this concert, along with the first concerts of the season, in October, were performed in dispute with the American Federation of Musicians, Local 72-147. The local chapter of the musicians’ union filed grievances on behalf of the orchestra’s members, according to this report on the chapter's website, and as a result the orchestra’s management has locked out its wind, brass and percussion players, as well as the harpist, for the 2019-2020 season. Thus, Las Garlington is currently a string orchestra.
Budget-wise, this organization is one of the largest orchestras in North Texas, after the major symphonies in Dallas and Fort Worth. I have been trying to find time to witness Austin’s work for years, and this concert finally provided that chance.
The Nov. 16 program was eclectic, and even a little eccentric. It felt like a potpourri of pieces that were some of Austin’s favorite works for string orchestra. He delivered entertaining and enlightening program notes from the stage. He has a charming stage presence that the audience liked and to which they could relate. There was nothing professorial or any whiff of the musicologist about him.
They opened with a work by the Greek 20th century composer Nikos Skalkottas (Nίκος Σκαλκώτας in Greek): his Five Greek Dances. From there they bounced to Puccini and one of his non-operatic compositions, Chrysanthemums. Austin inserted an intrusive lagniappe, the risky “Pizzicato Polka” by the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II. The program careened to another risky choice, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Hector Villa-Lobos. The program ended with Dvořák’s glorious Serenade in E Major.
The best performance by far was the first, the suite of five dances by Skalkottas, presumably drawn from his series of 39 Greek Dances for full orchestra that date from 1931 to 1936, some of which were arranged for other ensembles in 1949. He led a hard life of poverty and being ignored by the musical hierarchy. Many of his works were lost, although some continue to surface from time to time. His style varied from his personal take on Schoenberg’s serialism to Greek folk music as seen through a classical lens.
These dances are energetic delights that both conductor and orchestra members enjoyed playing. Austin even burned the floor with some dance steps while conducting.
The second-best performance was of Puccini’s elegy Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). It was written on the death of his friend, the Duke of Savoy. Puccini was so fond of this brief composition that he harvested the themes a few years later for his opera Manon Lescaut. This performance generally went well except for Austin’s penchant for slowing most of the Puccini-esque ritards to a near-standstill, which became a mannerism. This same problem occurred in most of the works on the reminder of the program.
There is almost nothing more difficult to pull off than a pizzicato in a string orchestra. Each note occupies such a minuscule point in time that there is absolutely no give when the notes are heard. Even one stray or even slightly late pizzicato note makes the whole chord sound like a sloppy attack. This was the problem throughout. A little more precision in Austin’s beat would have helped, but this is a piece that frequently finds its difficulty underestimated.
The orchestra was joined by the impressive soprano, Sarah Tucker. She did a marvelous job singing the widely varied demands of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Even the hum required for the last statement of the first theme was lovely. Her Portuguese was a little mushy, but so is the language with its combination of French, Italian and Spanish.
The program ended with Dvořák’s sublime Serenade for Strings in E Major. Here, intonation suffered, and Austin’s tempi felt slow throughout. Perhaps it was a lack of forward motion, rather than actual tempo, that made the work feel overly long and slightly labored.
It will be interesting to revisit the orchestra when I can hear it with a full complement of winds, brass and percussion.