Review: Chamber Symphony and Conductor Richard McKay Scored Three Big Wins

 In News, Reviews

By Wayne Lee Gay | Theater Jones

The Dallas Chamber Symphony and conductor Richard McKay scored three big wins on March 23 at Moody Performance Hall, with a program featuring an impressive and moving new work by a Dallas-based composer, followed by an iconic classic of American music and the encore of a film score premiered five years ago by the orchestra.

Kimberly Osberg is a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and a graduate of Luther College in Iowa and Indiana University. Her Rocky Summer, a tone poem featuring a projected text by the composer, describes, in words and music, an ill-advised but ultimately triumphant mountain hike at a key moment in her (still young) life.

I’ll admit I was at first dubious of the projected text—interjecting spoken or written text into a musical composition is a time-honored but risky proposition. I was soon won over, however, by the perfect match of Osberg’s sometimes self-deprecating, often evocative descriptions and her shimmering orchestration and melodic instincts. Osberg takes the trend for intensely colorful orchestration, now flourishing among American composers, and distills it for a small chamber orchestra, bringing an unexpected array of beautifully organized musical sounds. Conductor McKay and the orchestra brought a fine precision, color, and impetus to the 13-minute-long score, with its primordial echoes and wonderfully suspenseful climax.

The ensemble of 14 musicians exactly matched (and not by coincidence) the orchestration of the next work on the program, the chamber orchestra version of Aaron Copland’s Suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring from 1944. Copland’s music, and, for that matter, the ballet it was written to accompany, represent an urbane, nostalgic view of America’s past; Brooklyn-born Copland managed to capture, in resonant harmonies and unpretentious melodies, a sublime authenticity echoing the natural grandeur of our continent and the gritty determination of our forebears.

In spite of the work’s immense popularity in the version for full orchestra, a live chamber performance is a relative rarity. But in a performance by chamber orchestra, the lean resonance of Copland’s counterpoint, and the sometimes surprising but always just-right harmonic shifts comes through with admirable clarity in this tighter, more intimate version. Once again, conductor McKay shepherded a crisp performance, achieving the quintessentially American grandeur Copland aimed for here, from the gradually radiant introduction to the famous and beloved Variations on the sturdy Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” at the climax of the work. Most of the instruments get a shot in the spotlight in this version of Appalachian Spring, and all performed with requisite virtuosity.

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