The Dallas Symphony Orchestra's annual SOLUNA Festival kicks off this week with performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, featuring virtuoso Augustin Hadelich. Jean Sibelius wrote his only concerto in 1904, so it's not exactly new. Nevertheless, contemporary music has been a key part of SOLUNA from the beginning, which makes for the perfect time to introduce Dallas to Julia Wolfe, the DSO’s composer-in-residence.
“Composer-in-residence” is a title fairly ubiquitous in the orchestra world, but Wolfe tells us the position essentially creates an opportunity for a composer to build a solid relationship with an orchestra and that orchestra’s home city.
“I’m really thrilled to be connecting with Dallas,” she told us in a recent phone interview. “It’ll really be my first time to spend time there and learn about the city, so I’m excited.”
In addition to having the DSO present a number of her works, Wolfe’s residency also includes participation in a student/composer workshop and some collaboration during its first Women in Classical Music Symposium this November. Wolfe knows how challenging being a female artist is, but she’s optimistic about the state of things.
“It’s a much friendlier and fun world now than when I entered the field,” she says. “I have incredible respect for the women who came before me. I think it’s incredible that they persevered and dealt with a lot of bullshit and a lot of condescension … This just wasn’t a field women were encouraged to be a part of.”
Feminism is a prominent theme in Wolfe’s work “With a blue dress on,” which DSO musicians will perform during A Musician’s View on Monday. A Musician’s View is a SOLUNA staple, during which various groupings of DSO musicians present an evening of chamber music with one small adjustment — the audience sits on stage alongside them, rather than out in the hall.
“With a blue dress on” is scored for five violinists who are also required to sing.
“I’ve written a lot for strings over the years, but this piece represents my love of fiddling,” Wolfe says. “A lot of times fiddlers will be doing these crazy patterns, then they’ll suddenly burst out in song, and then they’ll just go right back to fiddling again.” Wolfe drew inspiration from a field recording of an older woman singing a folk tune with the lyrics, “Pretty little girl with a blue dress on / stole my heart and away she’s gone.” The meaning of Wolfe’s work goes beyond this tune, though.
“It’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor about this idea of ‘pretty little girl,’ because she’s a really tough, pretty little girl in the way I’ve set those words,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a feminist anthem.”
A group of female DSO violinists will perform the piece, which Wolfe says is “really challenging.” “They have to sing, play, stomp and make all kinds of crunchy sounds,” she says. “It’s fun, it’s very rhythmic and it has a very playful energy to it.”
Wolfe’s Pulitzer-winning oratorio Anthracite Fields will receive its Texas debut during SOLUNA. Dallas-based contemporary choral group, Verdigris Ensemble, and Wolfe’s own mixed New York City ensemble, Bang on a Can All-Stars, will participate. The piece is based on the lives of coal miners in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania and the hardships they faced, like tough and often extremely hazardous working conditions. Wolfe researched the topic extensively and interviewed numerous people immersed in the industry, including miners themselves and surviving family members.
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“It’s the story of that community and that heartbreaking industry but also very beautiful stories,” Wolfe says. “So I’ve felt very close to it, and it just was an incredible experience to meet all of these people.”
Wolfe still regularly hears from mining families about how much the piece means to them, even four years after its world premiere.
“It reached beyond just the arts community,” she says. “People came just for the subject, and then they wrote to me to tell me their stories.”