Dallas — One of the many wonderful things about the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is that to a listener, the orchestra is committed. I saw it during the Beethoven Festival, when they put their heart into outstanding performances of the “Egmont” overture and the Fifth Symphony. It was never just another rendition of the same old warhorses. Each musician was energetic and engaged. I saw it again in the “Hollywood Hits” Pops concert. Pops concerts can be excuses for orchestra members to just phone it in—after all, many of them would no doubt rather be playing Mahler Symphony No. 5 than the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the audience for these Pops concerts would often rather hear the Raiders theme, and that’s absolutely fine. Sometimes fun and intellectually undemanding is just the thing.
And that’s what the DSO is serving up this weekend.
The large audience for Friday’s DSO Pops concert definitely enjoyed the movie music theme, with its preponderance of John Williams tunes and a smattering of work by other composers. Although most principals were absent for this Pops concert, the orchestra for the most part still played crisply, with a few misses.
Conductor Jeff Tyzik’s own arrangement of themes from classic Westerns was first up. Although the arrangement went on a bit too long for my taste, it was for the most part well-crafted and crowd-pleasing, with plenty of audience cheers at the conclusion.
Tyzik’s conducting is solid and relatively unflashy, by pops-conductor standards, as is his appearance. He matched the white-jacketed orchestra, with the addition of a sequined black tie as his only hint of flamboyance.
The first of many John Williams pieces on the program was the set of three Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra from the film Catch Me If You Can. When I was an undergraduate, my friends and I used to play an informal game in which we’d listen to John Williams pieces and try, uncharitably, to figure out where he’d gotten his ideas. “Oh, he swiped that from Prokofiev!” we’d cry. Or “that’s Richard Strauss!” or what-have-you. In my maturity, I see that Williams is not a thief, but rather a musical chameleon. Yes, sure, he’s inspired by other composers, especially early 20th-century modernists. But it’s also the case that he’s one of the most versatile writers out there. This piece, ably performed by sax soloist Timothy Roberts and backed by a vibe player and bassist, plus the DSO, is straight-up jazz, unlike anything else I know of in Williams’s oeuvre.
Next up was a performance of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Conductor Tyzik told the famous story of how this and other orchestral music was used in the proofs of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then Stanley Kubrick hired a composer to create new music for the film. Kubrick ended up using none of the composer’s score, instead, famously, using Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and this Viennese waltz, among other pieces, as the score. The orchestra wasn’t as tight as listeners have come to expect from them. Cutoffs and entrances were sometimes sloppy. Nevertheless, the style was authentically Viennese.
Another crowd-pleaser was Tyzik’s arrangement of themes from James Bond films. Adding electronic keyboard and electric guitar allowed for the appropriate atmosphere. Like Tyzik’s arrangement of themes from Westerns, this piece went on rather too long for what it was. Here, trumpets had some uncharacteristic difficulties, too.
The second half of the program was all John Williams pieces. Gary Levinson was a standout on the Tango from Scent of a Woman—although I’ve heard him play with more precision, he embodied the tango style in his playing.
Most of the music on this half was familiar, crowd-pleasing favorites, such as the March from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Suite from Jaws (a rare opportunity to highlight the contrabassoon) and the title theme from Star Wars. Much of this music is technically quite difficult, and the DSO was impressive in its precision. The one outlier on this half of the program was the “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick. Tyzik said that this piece had never been performed in public before, but Gil Shaham recorded Williams’s own violin and piano arrangement of the piece in 2000. Check it out here.
This program was a lively close to the 2013-2014 Pops season and to Jeff Tyzik’s first season as principal Pops conductor. Tyzik enthusiastically gushed about plans for next season, including the “Let’s Dance” program in September featuring tap and ballroom dancers performing with the orchestra. Whether Tyzik will do for the Pops series what Jaap van Zweden has done for the Classical series is still uncertain, only one season in. But he certainly seems to have the enthusiasm for the job.