As the name implies, when it comes to chamber music -- music composed for a small ensemble as opposed to a large orchestra -- the space in which the music is performed matters. The slimmed-down size of a chamber orchestra creates a sense of intimacy and vulnerability between the performers and the audience. If the room is too large or acoustically dead, that feeling of closeness can get lost in the space.
Luckily, the Dallas Chamber Symphony (DCS) has found its perfect home in the Arts District's City Performance Hall. Both the orchestra and the room are relatively new to Dallas (both had their inaugural seasons last year), and both are proving to be valuable additions to the city's artistic offerings. Last night, during the opening concert of its second season, DCS performed three works composed for string orchestra. When bows came in contact with strings, the 750-seat hall was awash in warm, lush harmonies.
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Last night's concert began with a short and somber work by Arvo Pärt. Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten is a tribute piece by one of today's greatest living composers in celebration of one of the 20th century's greatest deceased composers. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth, and DCS will continue to honor the occasion by performing music by Britten himself at their next concert. Pärt's Cantus created a lush and beautiful atmosphere in the hall. Unfortunately, some intonation problems in the violin section made for a shaky start, but when the group hit its stride, the effect was haunting.
It was fitting that this concert, which was designed in part to welcome the orchestra's new concertmaster, Kazuhiro Takagi, was so exclusively string-oriented. Following Pärt's brief Cantus, DCS conductor Richard McKay welcomed Takagi to the stage for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D Minor. Here the orchestra hit its stride. McKay had a great sense for the tempo and character of the piece, which was clearly chosen to show off Takagi's technical and artistic skill. He was a fun performer to watch, if not always perfect on every high note or at every beat. His performance was charming and had character. The second movement in particular had an improvisatory feel that made for a fascinating performance.
Unfortunately for the orchestra and for patrons, City Performance Hall was not completely prepared to create the celebratory atmosphere the group's opening night performance deserved. The bar, still awaiting approval for its liquor permit, was dry. Whether you had planned to grab a beer at intermission or not, the lack of cocktail-sipping audience-members was noticeable. This is a new organization that is doing its best to make a big name for itself. It needs to appear professional at every turn and this hiccup was an unfortunate bummer.
But as sober patrons settled into their seats for the second half of the concert, the orchestra provided its own intoxication in the form of Tchaikovsky's romantic Serenade for Strings. As they had been all night, phrases were beautifully shaped. Throughout the performance there was palpable emotion in the playing and ultimately that intangible -- artistic sensibility -- is what made this concert a success.