Over the weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra tried something new. It's about time. If there is an arts organization in town that is in need of a little revamping in its programming and marketing, it's the symphony.
So kudos to the DSO for launching ReMix, a new concert series that attempts to court a younger audience with a more casual approach to the symphony concert-going experience. A change in venue from the Meyerson Symphony Center to the smaller Dallas City Performance Hall across the street also gives the orchestra an artistic opportunity to explore more intimate repertoire.
While not a smashing success on every front, ReMix's inaugural concert was a departure from the organization's status quo, which in and of itself is a success. Perhaps more importantly, the audience on Friday night appeared to be more generationally diverse than is typical of DSO classical subscription series concerts.
In the lobby before the concert young couples clutching the complimentary drink voucher that was included with their ticket packed the line at the bar and children darted around, eagerly grabbing cheese and fruit from picked over deli-trays. After the concert, the bar stayed open and orchestra musicians still sweaty from their performance mingled with guests. It was nice to see people actually stick around and socialize rather than darting for the exit.
The concert opened with a piece that was appealing to music nerds and symphony novices alike; the acoustics of the 750-seat Dallas City Performance Hall are ideal for the type of compact baroque orchestra used in Bach's Concerto d'amore in A major. In mediocre performances of baroque music, overly lush strings often drown out the pulsing ting of the harpsichord. But on Friday night, light, nimble strings, a bouncing bass line and the cheerful chordal chirps of the harpsichord were a perfectly balanced backdrop for DSO principal oboist Erin Hannigan's crisp and captivating solo.
When orchestras take a stab at more hip, accessible programming, they often water down the musical selections, abandoning meaty classical music for tired arrangements of the Star Wars theme. To the orchestra's credit, this program did not pander to the lowest common denominator of taste. Instead, they took a risk by performing the music of two masters of early modernism, Schoenberg and Prokofiev. If their gamble failed to pay off, it was not because this music was too heady or strange, but in the pacing of the night: after the Bach, the concert lagged instead of leaped.
Arnold Schoenberg's Transfigured Night was, actually, a great choice. It is long-but-not-too-long, and if it had been paired with something else of equal length instead of Prokofiev's 40-minute Sinfonia concertante, it may have worked. Unfortunately, the strings seemed to get bogged down in Schoenberg's wandering tonality at times. At least on Friday night, Jaap van Zweden and his small army of strings were too inwardly focused. The sounds they created were gorgeous, meticulously tuned and almost perfectly in sync, but the group was so busy crafting, they sometimes failed to communicate with the audience.
Despite stylistic precision, there was an uptight, almost nervous quality to the orchestra's playing during the first half of the concert. Standing on his big, carpeted podium (brought over from its home at the Meyerson Symphony Center across the street), Maestro Jaap van Zweden looked a little out of his element on the small stage. Hopefully they can let go and be more playful in future ReMix concerts.
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After intermission, the orchestra and Maestro Jaap van Zweden seemed to relax a bit and hit their stride with a piece that required a fuller orchestra. Principal cellist Christopher Adkins did a great job of introducing Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra , and gave an exciting and entertaining if not somewhat overworked solo performance.
I was worried that the large orchestra required for the Prokofiev would overwhelm the space, but even here the acoustics of City Performance Hall worked. It wasn't necessarily a bad choice, but why, when you are performing in this hall that works so well for chamber music, would you not take the opportunity to highlight a smaller group? There's no need to max out this stage, and both soloist and orchestra played too loudly at times.
There were elements of the evening that smacked of desperation, not dissimilar to the obligatory Sunday evening contemporary service your grandparent's church inevitably launches with an if-you-give-them-free-pizza-they-will-come strategy. Of course, free drinks never hurt, and the voucher (good for wine, beer or any mixed drink) was a great way to cushion the $25 and $35 ticket prices. The program notes were shorter and more appealing than those typically found in DSO program books. But cheesy, overly simplistic graphics in the Q&A bios with featured musicians were a bit childish in their stylization, leaving me wondering who, exactly, this series is supposed to appeal to -- the under 40 set or the under 14.
In the end, a contemporary service only appeals to young people who actually want to go to church anyway; your "hip" worship band will not a faithful church-goer make. Likewise, ReMix is unlikely to convert nonbelievers, but for those with a desire to hear high-quality classical performances in a new setting, this series makes a strong argument for alternatives to the standard classical subscription series concert.