If you drive downtown on Pearl Street, it’s hard to miss the big “Phenom” poster that hangs on the Meyerson. Jaap van Zweden has become the face of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. With him hitched to it till 2016, he’ll stay on the billboards awhile, bigger than life. Of course, it’s in the nature of Dallas to think big. Not to do so is anathema, like substituting water for whiskey. But sometimes we find we can learn more when there’s less pomp and circumstance.
Other faces in this city, not so quickly recognized as van Zweden’s, are no less important in terms of music. The Fine Arts Chamber Players’ Rogene Russell and the Orchestra of New Spain’s Grover Wilkins have been providing small, intimate, and informative concerts here for more than 20 years. The Fine Arts Chamber Players perform at the Horchow Auditorium, which seats 300, placing listeners close to the music and each other. Babies and kids are welcome, too, enlivening the atmosphere. The Orchestra of New Spain often has even smaller settings, frequently playing in the gallery of the Meadows Museum. To be surrounded by gorgeously colored medieval Spanish paintings while listening to the music is pretty phenomenal itself.
With some of the area’s finest players performing for both outfits—be they from the DSO, Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Symphony, Bach Society, or area universities—the music is of the highest caliber. Often, the conductors and players of these groups will talk to the audience before performing. Gary Levinson, the DSO’s senior associate concertmaster, commented on Corelli, Mozart, and Steve Harlos pieces during a recent FACP violin performance. At a concert last year, Wilkins, the ONS music director, earmarked motifs in Stravinsky for which the audience should listen. Such lessons you often don’t get at the DSO.
Russell, principal oboist for the Dallas Opera, co-founded the Fine Arts Chamber Players with Charles Price in 1981. Thanks to the support of the Bancrofts and other donors, the FACP’s seasonal concerts at the Dallas Museum of Art and its July Basically Beethoven Festival at Fair Park are free to the public. The FACP also manages to pay its players and do education outreach, as well. With an annual budget that caps out around $290,000, the FACP spends $3 on education for every $1 spent on concerts.
This allocation of funds rests on the fact that Russell wants to know “where society is letting down our children.” Often children with learning differences are left behind, he says, crowding prisons as adults because their educational needs have been neglected. Thus, the FACP’s Dream Collectors group has focused on issues like dyslexia. The Dream Collectors wrote and launched The LD Zone, a one-act play now being performed by the students at the Shelton School, the country’s biggest private school for learning-different kids. FACP after-school programs also benefit the young. Gae Hatton, executive director of the FACP, says these programs “help young adults who are losing out. It gives the kids a commonality, a level playing field.” These efforts teach the city’s young both music and responsibility.
Though the Orchestra of New Spain occasionally hosts free concerts, it caters to a different market, sometimes playing at some of the finest private residences in the city, as well as at the Meadows, the Latino Cultural Center, and area churches. Wilkins’ orchestra mostly focuses on baroque music from Spain and the Spanish colonies. Discoveries at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris led Wilkins to pursue this music, and he formed the orchestra in 1989, debuting with a concert at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was a fitting place to start. He notes that Spain’s musical culture was largely preserved by priests.
But it’s not just music the ONS preserves. It’s also preserving a heritage and culture. Since 1996, the ONS has produced a minimum of six concerts per year in area schools. The ONS also recently raised funds from the Hoblitzelle Foundation and the city of Dallas to present a Steinway to the Latino Cultural Center. Next year, the ONS will usher in a new era as it works with the Ibero-American group to celebrate Mexico 2010—a city-wide celebration honoring Mexico’s independence. Dance and music will all be performed, and educational symposia throughout the city will gather Dallas children together to learn about aspects of these arts. “The culmination of our work is bringing this conference to Dallas and designing its context,” Wilkins says.
For the immediate future, the ONS will have university musicians Linton Powell (UTA) and Larry Palmer (SMU) perform harpsichord pieces this month, and the FACP will host a performance of the Dallas Symphony Brass Quartet. Cities need symphonies, and ours is on the rise. With symphony players also playing for the FACP and ONS, Dallas’ premier musical institution and its satellite groups depend on each other. Dallas can stay strong only if it continues to master the details and particulars, the intimate and personal, just as well as it does the grand.
Events: Powell and Palmer in Concert, January 21. Visit
for more details. Dallas Symphony Brass Quartet, January 30, Horchow Auditorium DMA. Visit fineartschamberplayers.org for more details. Write to Joan Arbery at