"Nothing free in life is really free," says my mom. And she's right. The last time my phone company told me I was eligible for a "free" upgrade, they also charged me a $30 upgrading fee. Hey, phone company, $30 is not free.
One truly free thing Dallasites have been able to count on for the past three decades is the Fine Arts Chamber Players' annual Basically Beethoven Festival. The summertime series offers free chamber music concerts to the public every Sunday in July. In addition to free music, there was no fee for parking at Fair Park's Texas Discovery Gardens and, when you walked into the cool, sunlit space, you were greeted with a complimentary beverage. Free parking. Free booze. Free music. Free all around.
This year, after 32 years at Texas Discovery Gardens, the Basically Beethoven Festival moved downtown to the City Performance Hall in the arts district. While the concert itself is still free, you'll need to hit an ATM for cash on your way so that you can pay for downtown parking (meters are the cheapest route, but parking can be found close by for $3-$10). At City Performance Hall you are still welcome to sip on a drink during the concert, but you'll need cash for that, too, and prices are typical of performance venues (read: not cheap). So, basically, the Basically Beethoven Festival is still free, but not as free as it used to be.
Despite these added economic inconveniences, the new space has its upsides: namely, better acoustics and more seats. Texas Discovery Gardens was an aesthetically beautiful setting for a concert, with floor-to-ceiling windows framing lush greenery, but metal folding chairs were noisy and uncomfortable and, if you didn't arrive an hour early, you might have found yourself crammed against a back wall, straining to hear the sounds of a string quartet over crying babies and beeping hearing aids in the acoustically dead room. In contrast, City Performance Hall's windowless, dark space has plenty of tiered, plush seating. It feels like sitting in a movie theater, but a really nice, air-conditioned expensive one with great sound. This space was built for exactly the type of concerts the Basically Beethoven Festival features, and the quality of the listening experience is much better here.
This Sundays' concert kicked off the 2013 series with Imperial Brass, an ensemble that has become a staple at the Basically Beethoven Festival over the last several years. A group of 10 performers sat in a semi-circle on stage wielding shiny trumpets, trombones, a tuba, euphonium and French horn. In front of the group, a shaggy-haired drummer sat behind a standard drum kit. His presence, along with a program that featured jazz and popular music arrangements, made this concert the least traditionally "classical" of this year's festival offerings.
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The first half of the concert featured the obligatory Beethoven selection, a tired and clichéd arrangement of "Ode to Joy." Handel and Mahler were also represented with short works and a Sousa Polonaise was by far the best fit for the group, showing off the rich, warm sounds of this highly skilled professional brass ensemble.
Tuba player Nathan Frazier introduced each piece with an explanation or anecdote and, while his engaging personality worked to warm up the crowd, he quite simply talked too much and told too many bad jokes, dragging out the already long concert to an intolerable length. Introductions can enhance the listening experience, but sometimes its best to let the music speak for itself.
The group switched courses for the second half of the concert, playing swinging, jazzy selections. "Sound guy" Micah Bell arranged two pieces for the ensemble ("Irish Tune from Country Derry" and "Buddy Rich Medley"). Both arrangements expertly brought out this ensemble's particular strengths and showed off interesting and tight rhythmic and melodic takes on familiar melodies. Bell also joined the ensemble for these selections, belting out energetic improvised trumpet solos. Drummer Stockton Helbing's solos were equally as impressive and together, these young performers brought incredible energy to the stage.
The Basically Beethoven Festival continues July 14, 21 and 28 at City Performance Hall. All concerts start at 3 p.m. and are preceded at 2:30 by Rising Star Recital. For more information, visit www.fineartschamberplayer.org.