The Classical Note: A Rich Week for Classical Ensembles Old and New

An unusually rich week for new music among established and upstart ensembles in the region began on Tuesday, November 13, when the newborn Dallas Chamber Symphony scored major points with an exemplary evening devoted to living American composers at Dallas Performance Hall. Over the weekend, the Fort Worth Symphony continued its admirable practice of presenting new music next to old by giving John B Hedges’ exuberant Slapdance a prominent spot next to works of Rimsky-Korsakov and Schumann on a series of regular classical subscription performances at Bass Performance Hall. And, on Sunday night, the region’s most reliable presenter of new music, chamber ensemble Voices of Change, produced an evening of substantial and varied chamber and solo works at Dallas Performance Hall, ranging from composers with regional roots to the superstars of living American composers.

Easily the most arresting and memorable moment of the week arrived on Tuesday with the presentation of the premiere of Austin-based Brian Satterwhite’s score for director Fred Newmeyer’s A Sailor-Made Man, a 1921 silent comedy classic starring Harold Lloyd; Dallas Chamber Symphony music director Richard McKay conducted.

The movie embraces the crude clichés of early cinema—including snobby rich people, redemptive love, an evil sultan, soft-hearted tough guys, and jolly sailors—and in the process provides a sturdy structure for musical reaction. In much the same way that a composer of classical song “collaborates” with a poet who may be long dead to present a deeper view of purely verbal material, the silent cinema of the early twentieth century provides a canvas on which a composer such as Satterwhite can present new purely musical insight into visual material. (In another parallel, the producers of popular music videos enrich existing aural and verbal material with sometimes astounding visual interpretations, as, for instance, in the music videos accompanying the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or Sugarland’s “Everyday America,” to name three of the more outstanding examples.) Satterwhite’s success in producing a musical reaction to A Sailor-Made Man makes the upcoming premiere of his score for Robert Wiene’s 1920 horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on February 26 on the same series an event to look forward to.

The other really breathtaking moment of the unofficial week of new music arrived on Sunday night at the Voices of Change concert with William Bolcom’s Let Evening Come as performed by mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy, pianist Shields-Collins Bray, and violist Barbara Sudweeks.  Bolcom here creates a hybrid of song cycle and sonata, boldly drawing on poets from across the centuries, including Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Kenyon; mezzo-soprano Dupuy, with her beautifully dusky tone quality and practiced insight into poetry and contemporary music, produced a heart stopping instant at the close of the central Dickinson setting.

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Meanwhile, on the same concerts with Hedges’ Slapdance, the Fort Worth Symphony and guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domentech proved that there’s still plenty of life in music appreciation class standard (and everybody’s first favorite classical piece) Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (the underlying content of the work is so frankly erotic that it ought have an R rating). Principal players throughout the ensemble consistently performed the numerous solo spots at a top level in a work that’s practically a concerto for orchestra, and concertmaster Michael Shih deserves particular kudos for his yearning, unfailingly captivating rendition of the extensive solo violin obbligato.

Image from A Sailor Made Man