Dallas — The Dallas Chamber Symphony has found its niche and is attracting a dedicated audience. Music Director Richard McKay has wisely jettisoned playing orchestral works better left to large orchestras, like a Brahms symphony, and is showing a knack for chamber-sized programming. The concert on Feb. 25 at the Dallas City Performance Hall was a case in point.
The concert opened with a chamber version of a piece that was originally for larger forces: Joseph Schwantner’s Distant Runes and Incantations. The reduced version of the work retains the use of an amplified solo piano, which was excellently played by Eduardo Rojas. The piece is based on an amorphous poem written by the composer. It is more a combination of words that evoke what he calls “vivid extra-musical images.”
The music this particular poem inspired is a vaguely tonal series of events, some sharp staccato passages and some like tonal clouds that move across his musical sky. The piano part is wickedly difficult and Rojas did a wonderful job. This hearing made a good case for the piece and surely sent some in the audience to seek out a recording.
Rojas was put right back to work as McKay launched into a spiffy performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' delightful suite The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux). This piece, or at least part of it, is familiar to almost everyone.
It was written in 1886, supposedly for the enjoyment of his students, but was first premiered in a private performance. The composer used it as a diversion from work on his very serious third symphony. And diverting it is. As part of the fun, he quotes well-known pieces by many other composers, sometimes in an opposite context. By his own request, it was not published until after the composer’s death.
The 10 players of the DCS delivered a musically impressive performance. Saint-Saëns gives each of the instrumentalists a delightful solo to play. All were excellent, but one standout was double bassist Jack Unzicker, who gave a mammoth performance of “The Elephant” as he stomped through a version of some lighter-on-its-feet Mendelssohn. Cellist Oliver Schlaffer played “The Swan,” the most famous of the movements, with a rich singing sound.
But the bulk of the work fell to the two pianists, with Rojas being joined by Jonathan Tsay. Like all of Saint-Saëns’ piano music, and all the silly goings-on aside, these two parts are very difficult to play and require the skills of a consummate concert artist. Both Rojas and Tsay dispatched the difficulties with a flourish.
The only reservation about this musically accurate performance of The Carnival of the Animals was that no one seemed to be having much fun. This is a laugh-out-loud funny piece of musical satire, but McKay and his players went about it in a very serious manner. Perhaps a deadpan performance was intended to be a joke within a joke, as if the composer presented the suite to the players without the titles. It felt like that, intended or not.
The concert ended with something unique to the Dallas Chamber Symphony: another newly commissioned score to a silent movie. This, they do better than anyone else does, to my knowledge. You cannot help but suspect that this is the part of their mission that their increasingly loyal audience appreciates the most.
In some ways, this particular presentation was one of the best so far. To begin with, the film, Sherlock, Jr., dating from 1924, features Buster Keaton as both director and leading actor. It is certainly one of his best films and very funny throughout. The concept of someone from the real world stepping into the film itself, original here, has been “borrowed” ever since. One well-known example of this is Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.
Adding to this, composer Craig Marks is one of the most highly regarded composers for film, TV shows, animated features and commercials. All this while still maintaining a career as a concert composer. His score for this film hits every gesture or glance with just the correct musical poke. A film that is already a masterpiece was enhanced by Marks’ score.