Soluna Festival Is off to an Uneven, But Promising, Start

Opening night of Soluna with Alex Prager lasted a measly 20 minutes.
Opening night of Soluna with Alex Prager lasted a measly 20 minutes.

Last April on a Friday morning in the middle of the Dallas Art Fair, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra lured a number of journalists, artists and visiting gallerists into the Meyerson with the promise of coffee, pastries and an exciting announcement. A woman known only in social circles introduced herself to the crowd as Anna Sophia Van Zweden, the daughter of Maestro Jaap Van Zweden, and the new director of festival advancement for something called the "SOLUNA Festival." She promised a melding of the visual arts and music, discussing early commissions for the festival including a video piece by Pipilotti Rist, which would screen alongside a performance by the DSO.

To say there was a bit of excitement is an understatement, at least at this arts section. For music writer Jonathan Patrick, the theme "Destination: America" promised plenty of Bartok and Schoenberg and Mahler. For myself, the lineup offered big-time names like Rist, Yael Bartana and Kevin Beasley, who is collaborating with the Dallas Museum of Art for the festival. It seems to follow in the footsteps of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, a multi-venue, multi-genre festival that spans several weeks and features world-renowned artists and composers. Spoleto commissions Phillip Glass operas and hosts performances from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre from London.

One week in, and the festival with its Spanish portmanteau name and its arts district emphasis has seen moments of brilliance and a few head-scratchers.

Technically the festival opened before its opener. The very first night of the festival was May 4 with a concert called The Musican's View, which placed the audience onstage with the musicians at the City Performance Hall. This, as well as performances by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico and Avant Chamber Ballet, took place in the days leading up to last Wednesday night's official opening concert with video by Alex Prager and music by Austrian-born Ali Helnwein. Besides the fact that the City Performance Hall was noticeably empty (chalk that up to first time festival), the three videos, which were themselves a bit commercial and Hollywood for my taste, screened at a running time of under 20 minutes. Not a small number of people I chatted with after the performance half-heartedly joked that they wanted their money back.

The following evening, the only traditional art exhibition at the festival opened at the Goss-Michael Foundation featuring Prager's video work frozen and framed as photographic artifacts of the previous night's measly proceedings. Far more interesting were the portraits by Dallas-based artist Marjorie Schwarz, which were packed with spooky personality, and opening concurrently but outside of the festival. Of course, where I should've been was at the Latino Cultural Center seeing La Rondalla and ¡Oaxaca!, but judging by the number of people at Goss-Michael, I wasn't the only one who had to make this decision and chose poorly.

Then came Friday night and the first big symphony performance of the festival in ReMix:Hollywood Exile. A glorious program of music, filled with Stravinsky, Korngold, Schoenberg and Rozsa, this was the most successful version of the ReMix concerts I've attended. Packed with important composers and challenging, yet accessible introductions to their work. And the added element of Rist's video alongside Rozsa's Andante for String Orchestra created a cinematic puzzle at moments stunning and at others something pulled straight from a '90s music video. Although that might have been the headliner, the show stealer was Rozsa's Spellbound Concerto, written for the 1945 Hitchcock movie (which notably also features animation by Salvador Dali). Unlike most evenings of Hollywood music, these pieces were reminders of the orchestral work that true, artistic geniuses create for the cinema.

The weekend also contained studio hours with Franciso Moreno, the artist who took Washington Crossing the Delaware, abstracted it through naval methods of dazzle camouflage and also reconstructed a 1975 Datsun Z, painting it to disappear into the canvas. On May 23, his brother will drive doughnuts in front of the painting. He allowed lucky visitors to sit in the car and quiz him about the piece. Having previously done those things, I skipped out on the festival Saturday, regrettably missing the Conrad Tao recital.

Perhaps, the most compelling aspect of the festival thus far was the chamber music concert in the Dallas Contemporary. The Amernet String Quartet was joined by several members of the DSO to bring to life music by Nicholas Maw, Korngold, Bernard Rands and Britten's Phantasy Quartet. As my companion noted: "There are a lot of sounds coming from those instruments." The compact range of emotions and fascinating music played out surrounded by Nate Lowman's America Sneezes exhibition created a fortuitously perfect setting for a festival titled Destination (America).

What this festival has already accomplished handily is the activation of at least one space in new, exciting ways. Sunday night's concert in the Contemporary made me wish for more music in the cavernous art-filled galleries. Soluna has also programmed some incredible music on theme, and made some attempts to do so with the visual art component as well, at least in the case of Moreno and Rist. But maybe because of a lack of name recognition or reputation, the festival still lacks any kind of real headlining events. Right now, it's just the DSO programming around the theme, lucky to have a few members of the arts district jump on board. Let's hope that the renaming of the festival, adding Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Family to top billing will help them ramp up the crossover into visual art. We need more Morenos in the festival, and even more creative art/music collaboration, to make this the festival we were promised. Of course, wanting more and not less of Soluna is probably a sign that they're onto something good.

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