Dallas — Concerts presented by the Dallas Chamber Symphony mostly fall into a pattern. The first half presents something from the standard repertoire, conducted in an uninspiring manner by conductor Richard McKay, paired with a silent movie with a newly commissioned score on which McKay does a much better job.
Because of this, I feel like I write the same review over and over. This report on Tuesday’s DCS show at Dallas City Performance Hall will not be any different.
The program opened with Music for Small Orchestra by Ruth Crawford Seeger, which dates from 1926. McKay’s unhelpful opening remarks amounted to an apology for playing something full of dissonance. He also offered a confused timeline of composers as they moved away from the complex harmonies of the likes of Richard Strauss.
Seeger’s piece was an early one in her career and was precursor to her work as a serialist, a theoretical movement that was just beginning to attract attention at the time. Prepared for dissonance, that is exactly what many in the audience heard in Seeger’s piece. While that was certainly there, the overriding impression is that Seeger’s work uses dissonance in a post-tonal manner and that it belongs more in Scriabin’s camp than Schoenberg’s.
If McKay had allowed the piece to explain itself, it would be interesting to know what the unprepared audience would have heard.
The major work on the program was Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring (1944). Assembled from his ballet of the same name, this delightful music has charmed audiences ever since it was written. McKay performed it in its original version for 13 players (Copland later expanded it for full orchestra).
This performance presented an odd dichotomy. The excellent players gave a lively and idiomatic performance despite McKay’s somnambulistic conducting. On a rare occasion, he would make some halfhearted interpretive gesture but major shifts in pacing and dynamics were played—unacknowledged from the podium.
The movie was Bumping into Broadway starring a very young Harold Lloyd. It dates from 1919 and has earned its place in movie history because it was the first two-reeler that featured Lloyd’s goodhearted but bumbling “glasses” character. The new score was commissioned from composer Rolfe Kent, who is quite well known for his film and TV music, including the Dexter theme and the score to Legally Blonde. He garnered a Golden Globe nomination for his score to the 2004 film Sideways.
This film is not quite as funny as the last Lloyd film that the DCS presented, but the hapless “glasses” characters calamities are still quite amusing. Kent’s score bounces along with the misadventures on the screen in a highly appropriate manner. Musical effects reflect precise actions on the screen, enhancing many funny moments. This exact underlining of the action on the screen by the score shows his many years of experience with major releases.
McKay kept with the film most of the time. Some in the audience could see the click track on his laptop, which was on his music stand facing outwards. Thus, it was easy to tell when he was slightly off—but also how skillfully he caught up. In some scores, being apart from the click track makes little difference. However, it is to the credit of Kent that even the slightest deviation is noticeable, even without being able to see the click track.
The DCS is justly famous for this ambitious program of commissioning composers to write new scores for these classic movies. The film concerts fill City Performance Hall, which attests to the popularity of McKay’s efforts. If the group would field two movies per concert, instead of McKay’s disengaged trip through some repertoire, these concerts would be wildly successful.