Dallas — The Dallas Chamber Symphony is a young ensemble. By that, I don’t mean that if you take the sum of the ages of all the musicians and divide by the number of players, you’ll get a surprisingly low number, although I think you might. By “young ensemble,” I mean (1) they’re still finding their audience, (2) they’re doing some things that more established groups either can’t or won’t, and (3) they’re only in their fourth official season. Point 3 is just a fact. Point 1 is a problem from a couple of perspectives, one of which will be sternly addressed later. Point 2 is illustrated by the program the group presented Wednesday at Dallas City Performance Hall.
Richard McKay, the founder of the Dallas Chamber Symphony, as well as its artistic director and conductor for all concerts, has done some obviously innovative things with them, such as the silent film series, and next to that, Wednesday’s program seemed kind of innocent. “Seemed” is the operative word, though, because the program’s recognizable names concealed some surprises.
The program opened with the ensemble’s Concertmaster, Kazuhiro Takagi, and the Principal Second Violin, Chloé Trevor, as soloists in the J. S. Bach Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Two Violins, a piece that never wears out its welcome. This is an instantly recognizable work, but the opening measures are always kind of a shock—it sounds like the first page of the work has been torn out. And, but for a couple of pitch problems—differences of opinion, let’s call them—in the ensemble during the course of the movement, the overall effect was superb. Takagi and Trevor’s contrasting tone colors made their clever handing of passages back and forth not only exciting, but easy to follow. The second movement was beautifully done, and Trevor’s lovely way of launching it was almost lost—but I’ll come back to that. The two soloists worked especially well in the third movement with its close, even claustrophobic imitation. Had it not been for their contrasting timbres, which worked especially well in this piece, the movement would have been as difficult to follow as it often is in recordings. Listen to one and you’ll see what I mean.
Bach was followed by Bloch; more precisely, by Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Strings and Piano. According to the program, at least; more accurately, it should be “for Strings and Piano Obbligato.” Make no mistake, this work is most certainly not a piano concerto. In the work’s twenty-odd minutes, there are only five measures in the first movement that even look like concerto material, and even then it’s a stretch; in the second movement there are eight such measures; in the third movement, thirteen; and in the fourth, five again. All this rigorous math is not to minimize the role played by the piano in the work; on the contrary, the piano absolutely makes the work.
The pianist plays almost constantly and, for about 98 percent of the time, doubles what the other instruments are playing. It’s a unique sound, unlike any piano concerto on the planet. And selling it like a piano concerto (as the DCS website tried to do) won’t change that, and neither will taking the lid off the piano to make the instrument a little more assertive, which it certainly didn’t need. Pianist Eduardo Rojas did a wonderful job on a part whose chief difficulty—and this should not be underestimated—is playing with the other instruments, rather than against them: reinforcing, blending with, and highlighting them.
The program closed with Leos Janáček’s Idyll for string orchestra, a work from early in the composer’s career. This is not the wild Janáček of the Sinfonietta, nor the psychologically troubled Janáček of the string quartets. This is a well-behaved young Czech who has more in common with Dvořák (though not quite that well-behaved) or Edvard Grieg (absent the occasionally overwrought sentimentality) than with those better-known, older Janáčeks. There’s some dangerous territory for strings in this unassuming little work: lower strings playing in a very high register, but still playing a supporting bass line—that’s risky, but for the most part the DCS violas and cellos were very strong in this chancy role.
Now, the stern part. The concert etiquette on Wednesday was some of the most appalling I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m not even talking about clapping between movements, which was all over the place. I’m talking about the stampede of late arrivals coming in after the first movement of the Bach, a thunderous influx that nearly drowned out some of Trevor’s best solo work in the piece. Then there was the equally thunderous stampede of just two people between a couple of movements of the Janáček; please, if you’re going to leave at a point like that, first remove your klomps. It’s a shame to mar a delicacy of the Janáček—and, by extension, the entire program—with a racket like that.
The Dallas Chamber Symphony shouldn’t have to take such stuff into account, and neither should their audience.