Review: Richard McKay Conducts John Adams, Chamber Symphony

 In News, Reviews
By John Norine Jr. of TheaterJones.

Programming is a difficult proposition. It’s something that most audiences never take into account; often, as long as familiar tunes are heard, patrons don’t give a second thought to the matter. But, the reality of the subject weighs heavily on the minds of both artistic directors and conductors. How long is the program? Is there a specific theme? How does a concerto (if used) fit into the program? Can the group play this music in the rehearsal time allotted?

In the end, concerts live and die by these decisions (among many more). While ambitious programs are lauded, the often increase the stress level.

In their most recent presentation, the Dallas Chamber Symphony eschewed the safety net and went for the jugular with an extremely ambitious program, featuring works by John Adams, Michael Torke, as well as an original film score presentation by composer Brian Satterwhite, all under the baton of conductor and music director Richard McKay.

The program opened with Torke’s Adjustable Wrench. The work, scored for 15 instruments, is firmly mired in the post-minimalist idiom that Torke claims as his specialty. The ensemble is broken down into three groups of four instruments, with a keyboard instrument (either synthesizer, marimba, or piano) supporting each section. The work was well performed, but there were some minor balance issues—especially with the synthesizer being slightly too loud.

Next on the program was John Adams’ Chamber Symphony. A quick aside: Adams pulls no punches with his orchestral repertoire. Simply put, his music is difficult to prepare, and even more so to perform. His compositional voice is rife with cross rhythms, mixed meters, as well as hemiola-like figures that pit awkward rhythms against each other.

In his program notes, Adams talks about how the piece is a fusion of both Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 and cartoon music from the 1950s. Further, he acknowledges the fact that the piece is extremely difficult to play, describing many of the musical passages as “unreasonably difficult”. All of this makes the performance given by the ensemble that much more exemplary. Everything from the first note was locked in rhythmic precision, and difficult passages were clear, focused, and musical; the musicality was particularly appreciated, as it is common to hear performances (and recordings) of this work that are simple recitations—some ensembles manage to get through the work but don’t say anything. The performance given was musical, and kept the piece interesting without tiring the audience’s aural palate.

After intermission, the ensemble retook the stage for the second half, featuring Satterwhite’s new film score to the 1921 silent film A Sailor-Made Man, starring Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis (Lloyd’s longtime co-star and eventual wife). The concept of orchestras performing live music along with movies is not a new concept; our own Dallas Symphony has done it often with such works as Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz. But the concept of a new score to a silent film is more original in scope if not concept.

Satterwhite’s music has a fresh originality, while also evoking a parallel to the film music of Aaron Copland. Unlike “traditional” silent film music, which was often performed by a solo pianist or organist and often improvised on the spot, the composer makes efficient use of full palate provided by the chamber group. Further, he disembarks the improvisatory nature of the style and grounds the material in a concrete idiom that actually gives more weight to the visual presentation. The combination of the visual and aural was spot on for the most part, there were only a very few instances where aural cues didn’t line up exactly with what seemed to be intended; though, to be fair—that is an extremely minute criticism and should in no way dampen the success of the presentation.

The crowd was small, but appreciative of the music making of the evening. As this is the inaugural season for the Chamber Symphony, it is understood – to a degree. The ensemble is extremely adroit in their presentation as well as programming, and it won’t be too long before they challenge other well-established ensembles for premier status in the area.

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