Richard McKay founded the Dallas Chamber Symphony Orchestra.EXPAND
Richard McKay founded the Dallas Chamber Symphony Orchestra.
courtesy Dallas Chamber Symphony Orchestra

Dallas Chamber Symphony, an Arts District Underdog, Prepares for Its Seventh Season

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra just launched its 2018-19 season with a black-tie gala event and visits from Grammy-winning guest stars.

Across the street, at the smaller, more casual Moody Performance Hall, the other symphony orchestra in Dallas is preparing for its seventh season with slightly less fanfare. The Dallas Chamber Symphony is an eclectic Arts District underdog, though its underdog status may not last for long.

Founded by conductor and University of Texas alumnus Richard McKay, the Dallas Chamber Symphony presents an eclectic, casual approach to classical music performance, fueled by a talent pool of passionate part-time musicians. The 2018-19 season includes silent movie screenings, for which the orchestra has commissioned and will perform specially composed soundtracks, alongside new music by a Dallas local and classics like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

“The repertoire we perform is so different — ballet, contemporary, a little bit of pops, but also Beethoven’s Fifth,” McKay says. “We like to take some deep cuts. We’ve got a couple that are kinda out there.”

For both performers and audiences, the Dallas Chamber Symphony acts as a bridge between the local grassroots arts scene and the grandiosity of a full symphony orchestra. Full-time symphonies are an enormous undertaking, employing at least a hundred world-class artists and performing huge artworks that can’t really exist outside the concert hall (and are often 200 years old).

The DCSO, McKay explains, is a sort of compromise.

“One of the advantages to being a smaller midsize group is these types of organizations can bridge the gap between what that artistic scene really is outside the concert hall, and the personal lifestyles of all our musicians, while giving a taste of a phenomenal stage orchestra," McKay says.

The musicians themselves, by the way, are not exactly amateurs. Life with a full-time orchestra is a tough grind, starting with grueling auditions and overshadowed by constant financial pressure, and many good musicians are happy to skip out on that lifestyle. Some of them find homes in ensembles like the DCSO.

“For musicians, they may come from a different path,” McKay says. “They may be chamber musicians, they may have families, they may do visual art in addition to music. Ensembles that aren’t a full-time commitment — sometimes you can see some of the most interesting artists, who might not be a good fit in an orchestra. I look at many of our musicians and they’re so good they could play in an orchestra, but they wouldn’t fit. It’s a lifestyle and personal philosophy thing.”

Of course, after six years, the Dallas Chamber Symphony is establishing its own formidable reputation. McKay’s group has debuted 28 new compositions over the years, including 17 brand-new scores to classic movies. The movie screenings are the orchestra’s calling card; they will present two this season, one of them new and the other returning by popular demand. For the composers, this task presents challenges — especially the nonstop hubbub of chase scenes.

For the orchestra, the task is even mightier: They have to synchronize the music to the movie.

“The orchestra has very little time,” McKay says. “The first time we time everything to film and synchronize it is at dress rehearsal. That’s our one shot to get it all together, and then it’s go time that evening.”

This year’s films are Our Hospitality, the silent Buster Keaton comedy set to new music by Scott Glasgow (Oct. 13), and Bumping into Broadway, a silent 25-minute feature starring Harold Lloyd. Bumping into Broadway is paired on March 23 with Copland’s Appalachian Spring and a new composition by Dallas local Kim Osberg. (Osberg’s work doesn’t have a name yet; she has total artistic freedom to deliver whatever she likes.)

Earlier in the season, concerts will feature The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a tango-inflected violin concerto by Astor Piazzolla (on Feb. 19), and a Nov. 6 program combining Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, featuring Fort Worth Symphony principal trumpet Kyle Sherman, and Tchaikovsky’s moody travelogue Souvenir de Florence. The popular classic Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony brings the season to a conclusion on April 30.

McKay sounds optimistic about the Dallas Chamber Symphony’s future. He notes that ticket revenue, subscriptions and attendance are all increasing each year — evidence of demand for a less formal classical concert experience.

“What’s especially exciting is the growing team of leadership — people very interested in advancing the DCS as one of the important arts ensembles in the Arts District,” he says. “We’re starting planning farther ahead — we’ve already got four seasons on paper. We’ve got a devoted, motivated staff, musicians who are very loyal, that leadership team. We couldn’t ask for more.”

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