Review: An Outstanding Performance of Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger
By Caroline North | The Dallas Observer
The Dallas Chamber Symphony is coming to the end of its season; Tuesday they performed Bumping Into Broadway at the Dallas City Performance Hall, the fourth of 5 concerts that comprise this season’s offerings. It was a cold and rainy evening, but the concert was a near sell-out. The performances began with a composition by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Music for Small Orchestra, which Dallas Chamber Symphony Artistic Director Richard McKay — who was also the conductor of the 13-piece ensemble — prepared those unfamiliar with the work for by explaining that it’s a strange, dissonant piece reflective of shifting attitudes after World War II. And it was definitely strange — but not unpleasantly so.
I was in a cinematic mindset because I knew that after intermission there would be a composition for a silent film. No imagery was provided for the first two performances, so I decided to conjure my own. I concluded that “Music for Small Orchestra” would be an appropriate score to your childhood toys coming to life, holding you hostage and torturing you. But, you know, in a good way. The music was beautifully haunting, and being slightly afraid and uncomfortable is a form of being moved, after all.
By contrast, the “Appalachian Spring Suite” by composer Aaron Copland was kittens bounding through dewy grass. The 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition had perilous-sounding moments but these only approached kitten encountering scorpion but ultimately outwitting it. The suite performed was the original one written for dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, as opposed to the full orchestral version. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I always seem to enjoy myself at The Dallas City Performance Hall; it’s a great space. It’s plenty nice, but it’s minimalist and not stuffy, and it’s also very versatile. The venue, completed in 2012, has since played host to comedy acts, touring plays, musical performances and now films, too. It really rounds out the Arts District.
Arguably my favorite part of the evening was the performance for which the event was named, and it came after the intermission. The Chamber Symphony presented a work by film composer Rolfe Kent, who may be best known for the theme song to Showtime’s Dexter. In this case, he composed an original score for an old silent romantic-comedy by Harold Lloyd, Bumping Into Broadway. This wasn’t the first time the Symphony had paired music with film. In October, they collaborated with the Video Association of Dallas to perform a score for the Hitchcock classic The Lodger. On Tuesday, a screen once again came down behind the orchestra and this time the audience was treated to Lloyd’s hilarious 20-minute silent film.
It really was hilarious, I promise! Thanks partly to the live musical accompaniment, Bumpin’ Into Broadway came to life. It’s hard to make a movie from 1919 feel relevant, but they did. It’s amazing how precise the orchestra had to be to match sound effects to each seconds-long bit of action on the screen. (I suppose that level of precision is to be expected of professional musicians no matter what they’re playing, but I was amazed just the same.) And there’s no contemporary equivalent to the sort of physical comedy that Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton mastered. It’s still incredibly impressive and impactful; the audience was in stitches.
If you’re feeling squirrely at the thought of listening quietly to classical music — and this evening was snappy anyway, at a run time of about 90 minutes, including intermission — the Dallas Chamber Symphony’s film events are a great middle ground. The quality of the music is outstanding, but you also get the benefit of visual stimulation, so you really can’t help but be 100 percent entertained.
Even though their season is winding down, you’re in luck. For their final concert, the Chamber Symphony will team up with the Video Association of Dallas once more for Sight of Sound, where selections from the second annual Sight of Sound Festival will be presented. The festival reverses the traditional process of composing for film. Filmmakers start with a piece of music as their inspiration — compositions by Vivaldi and Schubert are among the selections this time — and create an accompanying silent film that enhances its effect.
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