A string of appealing miniatures led up to one of the monuments of the string orchestra repertoire Tuesday night at Dallas City Performance Hall in the second concert of the current subscription season of the Dallas Chamber Symphony.
Although the configuration of the Dallas Chamber Symphony varies from concert to concert, a substantial contingent of 22 strings appeared on stage with conductor Richard McKay for this program. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings opened the evening. Written in 1892, when the young Elgar was still virtually unknown, the work begins with a first movement that could have been written by any of dozens of composers of the day before bursting, in the second movement, into the radiant emotionalism of a composer destined to produce numerous orchestral masterpieces. The orchestra, conductor McKay, and this particular work fit perfectly in the relatively intimate, 750-seat hall.
Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik (“Mourning Music”) of 1936 followed; although the work was originally written for viola solo with strings, the orchestra’s principal bass Jack Unzicker served as soloist for this performance. Unziker’s intense expressiveness played nicely against the resonant background of string orchestra, and the florid commentary of the soloist against the closing orchestral chorale proved one of the high points of the concert.
Flutist Margaret Fischer joined conductor McKay and the ensemble (with harp added) for American composer Howard Hanson’s Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings; Fischer managed to be both assertive and lyrical in the lavishly melodic solo line set against a constantly colorful orchestral accompaniment.
After intermission, McKay and the ensemble turned to the evening’s main event, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). Here, in the closing days of the 19th century, the composer who would eventually shatter tonality in a storm of dissonance was extravagantly romantic (some sections could almost have been written by Elgar), inspired by a sticky poem of a guilt-ridden woman and the man she loves. Although it’s nice to know the history of the work, the music is actually a bit more appealing if one listens to the music without thinking about the story it tells. And it was particularly appealing in this performance, in which the slow opening crescendo built to a soaring early climax, once again demonstrating that the Dallas Chamber Symphony is a valuable addition to the region’s musical life.