Dallas — One of the goals of the Dallas Symphony’s Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival it to create new artistic collaborations by bringing music to a wide variety of venues around the city that usually don’t, or rarely, present concerts. Such was the case on Tuesday evening when some musicians from the DSO played some chamber music at the Dallas Contemporary in the Design District.
For those unfamiliar with Dallas Contemporary, it is a non-collecting art museum: meaning that artists display works but the museum doesn’t own any itself. The space is huge so artists have lots of space to install massive creations. For this occasion, the artist is the Italian-born Paola Pivi, who now lives in New Delhi, India.
This riches of space were readily apparent on entering the museum because there was what was later identified as an Italian Flat Military Plane—upside down. It was mounted nose down as if frozen in the exact second before impacting the ground. The cockpit was empty—perhaps the pilot ejected, creating a mysterious narrative.
The exhibit featured in the Soluna brochure, Pivi’s “Ma’am,” is a series of life-size bears in unnatural colors, from hot pink to purple. Some are sitting others standing on hind legs and one is in the process of climbing up the wall. In between the movements of the music, a short pre-recorded interview with the bears was played. It was muffled and a little hard to understand from my seat.
The music was not hard to hear, but it was hard to see. The players were seated on the floor, as was the audience. The first two rows had a clear view but from row three and back, we only got peeks through the thicket of heads. A platform would have solved the problem and will hopefully be used for future performances at the venue. The acoustics are excellent and more concerts there would be welcome.
The program opened with Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3. The players were all drawn from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra: violinist Nora Scheller, violist David Sywak and cellist Jennifer Humphreys. If you don’t recognize these names, it is because they don’t sit in principal named chairs, but are in the section.
What was immediately noticeable about this performance was the excellent first chair-worthy performance that they delivered. With players like these in the DSO string section, there is little wonder why the sound is so remarkable.
Beethoven’s early string trio contains hints of what would become his hallmarks in the future. First of all, it is in C minor, a key that he saved for strong emotions, and the first movement is indeed intense. The players took a deep breath and played the lyrical second movement with sensitivity. The scherzo was relatively short but had the requisite contrast between a vital and intriguing main section and a more relaxed trio. The last movement recalls Haydn on the page, but the players correctly played it in a Beethovenian manner.
The second piece on the program was Mozart’s sublime Horn Quintet in E flat major, K. 407. Instead of the expected second violin, Mozart surprises with a second viola (Pamela Askew, also in the DSO).
This quintet is frequently referred to as a miniature horn concerto because of the prominence of the horn all the way through and the difficulty of the part.
Taking on this famously difficult horn part was one of the new stars of the DSO: David Cooper, the Principal Horn. His rapid rise is remarkable: from a seat in the Fort Worth Symphony to the third horn seat in the DSO to the principal chair where he shines in every concert.
Horn players have a saying the playing the horn in an orchestra is 99 percent routine and 1 percent sheer terror. Cooper makes it look so easy that you think you could just pick up the instrument and play it tomorrow. Would that it was so. The horn is notoriously difficult to master and always remains capricious to play. Cooper seems to be immune to, or perhaps simply ignores, its finicky and contrarian nature.
This performance was on the expected high level. But what was exceptional was the last movement. Frequently, I rail against molto serioso performances of joyous or playful music that lacks the soul, and intent, of the music. The last movement of Mozart’s quintet is just such a romp and Cooper’s broad smile before launching in to the finale was infectious. Everyone smiled back and so did Mozart’s music, as it came to life in a most amazing manner. Cooper tossed off the horn fanfares near the end with the same humor that marked the entire performance.
Would that more performers would smile for all to see when the smile is written in the music for all to hear.