The Dallas Symphony

In the last 15 years, the Dallas Symphony has bounced back from dire financial straits, built a world-renowned music hall, and hired a talented young music director. Now the DSO is aspiring to even greater heights—to the level now occupied by the Big Five


The DSO is gradually building up its touring program. The symphony spent three weeks in Europe last fall, and it will go to Carnegie Hall in February. Litton took the orchestra to Europe for the first time in 1997; the next visit is planned for 2003. Also in the works is an Asian tour—the first—for 2004. The ultimate goal, says Bonelli, is to have an annual tour in Europe, Asia, North or South America.

Recording also requires major subsidy. The Dallas Symphony has a long recording history, dating back to Antal Dorati in the 1940s. However, the orchestra recording business has undergone cataclysmic change in the last decade. The costs associated with recording—in particular, paying the musicians—increased substantially. Sales did not. What’s more, the CD technology prompted recording companies to release huge numbers of recordings in their back catalogues in the new format, creating mas-

sive competition for most standard repertory works. A bottom-line attitude on the part of major recording companies sent most of them out of the orchestra recording business altogether. Even such orchestras as Cleveland and Philadelphia, once bastions of the industry, found themselves homeless. Some orchestras tried to go it alone. The St. Louis Symphony, which had a rich, 30-disc contract with RCA that ended after the Slatkin years, decided to create its own nonprofit recording company, a collaboration of management and musicians, to capture the work of its new music director, Hans Vonk, for posterity. However, the costs involved turned out to be greater than anticipated, and the operation has been suspended.

Dallas has taken a more traditional route, with the orchestra raising funds to make recordings with an established company. The DSO now has more than a dozen CDs recorded with Litton, most of them with Delos, a Hollywood-based audiophile label. Delos is releasing several Dallas discs each year, most recently featuring the music of Lowell Liebermann, the DSO’s composer- in-residence, as well as recordings in Litton’s specialty repertoire areas, such as Mahler and Shostakovich (Litton even plays the piano on the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2). Litton is particularly delighted with the discs because, he says, “Delos has managed to capture the sound of our hall. This is a big step, because the hall is a fantastic place in which to hear music.”


In the last decade, however, American orchestras have also learned that merely garnering recognition abroad is not enough—they neglect their backyards at their peril. The Saint Louis Symphony, built into a nationally and internationally recognized entity in the 1980s, had a rude awakening in 1989 when the citizens of St. Louis voted down extra funding for the orchestra from a tax increase. The SLSO went on to develop an innovative community interaction program, which includes its own community music school.

    Indeed, in recent years, many of the larger American orchestras are concentrating less on the rankings game and more on becoming an integral part of their community. The Chicago Symphony recently opened a high-tech interactive educational center that is open to the public. Milwaukee has a substantial presence in the city’s public schools. The Detroit Symphony has a mentoring program for African-American musicians. Seattle is putting on a Pacific Rim festival this spring. Jesse Rosen, vice president of artistic and professional services at the American Symphony Orchestra League, says that American orchestras now recognize that they can no longer assume that simply because they play great repertoire wonderfully, people will come and support them. “They’re increasingly conscious of the need to have a profile that’s distinctive, to organize the repertory in ways that help the public find compelling reasons to be there. The audience is not monolithic.”

Dallas is pursuing recognition abroad and at home simultaneously. “We have to develop our role as a civic asset, one that is relevant to the entire community,” says Douglas Adams, the DSO’s general manager. “To do that, we have to listen to the audience and have an open mind about how we can evolve. This is not an elitist kind of place, and we have to look at how to present ourselves as a place to go.”

In the interest of demystification, the symphony created some radio spots that comically address some of the misconceptions that non-symphony-goers have about orchestra concerts, such as how to dress and when to applaud. A magisterial, low-voiced male announcer declares that there is a terrible fear abroad: “Fear of the Dallas Symphony.” Named individuals state their worries. “How can I go to the Dallas Symphony?” says a woman. “I don’t have a $5,000 strapless evening dress.” “I do,” intones the announcer. “But I don’t feel compelled to wear it to the Dallas Symphony.”

The young adults targeted by such ads may well be some of the ones who are finding the Dallas Symphony through technology. The DSO web site, for example, has already attracted new audience members. “An impressive number of people are accessing our tickets through our web site,” Adams says. “The majority are not our traditional patrons. We have a lot of brand-new, first-time ticket buyers.” The Dallas Symphony was also early on the webcasting trend, offering a concert webcast last February, even before the AFM, the national musicians’ union, established guidelines for payment to artists. “This has real implications for how we deliver our product,” Adams says. “We have a great hall, and nothing will replace the live experience, but we should make our product accessible in other ways. As the technology improves, we’ll be able to do that. The Web could potentially address the dismal state of the recording industry—when you can download music and burn your own CD at home. That’s not far away.”

The Dallas Symphony is also forging links with civic leaders and non-traditional symphony communities. The city is responsible for the maintenance of the Meyerson, which makes for close relationships. Bonelli remarks with great pride that Dallas mayor Ron Kirk and his wife, Matrice, have personally commissioned a work from Lowell Liebermann, the DSO’s composer-in-residence, to be performed at a children’s concert next year. Dolores Barzune chairs the cultural affairs committee for the city of Dallas. “We’ve done a lot of work with city council members, showing how we work in their districts,” Bonelli says, pointing in particular to a variety of educational programs in Dallas city schools.

One unusual educational program that targets talented African-American and Hispanic children was actually started by a DSO bass player. Young Strings, which was taken on by the DSO’s education department in 1994, now has more than 150 participants. It selects 40 to 60 interested kindergarten children and offers them general music training for a year. In first grade, the children progress to twice-weekly lessons on their chosen string instrument, provided by the DSO. Parents are very involved and must sign a commitment letter, ensuring that the children will attend lessons and practice. In sixth grade, all the students audition for the Finale program, which features lessons with DSO musicians and an extended mentoring program. The symphony started the elementary and high school programs simultaneously, and some of the high school students have been accepted in major conservatories—one is at the New England Conservatory, one at Juilliard.


The core of support at home, say DSO officials, is “the quality of the product.” A visit to the Meyerson in the fall gave some indication of how the orchestra sounds these days. Led by Scott Yoo, a young former associate conductor of the DSO, the orchestra indulged in a rather Romantic reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 and, on the second half, played a handsome and thoughtful performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. Most remarkable was the lyrical third movement, in which the solo winds, who take turns echoing a single plaintive phrase, sang beautifully and were deftly cushioned by a string sound that was sensitive if not opulent. The Meyerson’s famous bass response also gave the performance prominence that didn’t sacrifice clarity.

The evening was rather restrained, however, as opposed to those when Andrew Litton is on the podium. Litton, who turned 40 last year, generates excitement, both on the stage and in the audience. “He gives you space to play and be expressive,” says principal clarinet Greg Raden. “He’s not a control freak. He encourages you to let your personality come through.” Wilfred Roberts goes even farther. “He truly is one of the big talents of the last 50 years,” says the bassoonist. “Only time will tell. It wasn’t until Leonard Bernstein was 60 or 70 that the world really found out what he was like.” Mata, says Roberts, was “totally different. Mata controlled everything. Litton is much more spontaneous. He’ll tend to go for broke and let it expand. They are totally different approaches, both very valid.”

 Litton’s effusive Bernstein-esque personality has certainly won over the orchestra-goers. A woman in the DSO audience, a subscriber for 17 years, remarked that she relates to Litton. “I just want to do this,” she says, making a cheek-pinching gesture. Litton lives in town and is very much a part of its fabric. Dallas residents are also proud that their music director is American, in contrast to many of the other major posts around the United States these days.

The critics, however, are not necessarily convinced by the go-for-broke approach to conducting. Anthony Tommasini, reviewing the DSO’s January 1999 Carnegie Hall concert for the New York Times, called Litton a “solid, technically assured musician.” While praising the interpretations for “appropriate grandeur and spaciousness” and “incisive rhythm and clear direction” in a program of Elgar, Debussy, and Walton, he concluded by saying, “Mr. Litton drove his players into frenzies of sound. My eardrums have not buzzed so much since the time I forgot to take my sound-filtering earplugs to a Sting concert. But it was undeniably exciting.”

Scott Cantrell, classical music critic of the Dallas Morning News, followed Litton and the DSO through two weeks of their European tour and chronicled a high level of playing from the orchestra, as well as the enthusiastic response from European audiences. At the London Proms, for example, he reported “great roars of applause plus bravos” from the audience of 5,000 people, and a performance of the Shostakovich 10th Symphony that “will be burned into memory.” (His English colleagues offered some wildly diverging views of that occasion: The Times reviewer called the performance the “most honest and moving” account of Shostakovich in the festival; the Independent declared it was “neutered” and “shopping-mall Shostakovich.”) Cantrell has his own reservations about Litton. “The DSO needed someone to loosen them up, put some fire into them,” he says. “The orchestra does play better than it did. I just wish there was more depth in the programming and the interpretations.”



Indeed, the programming of the orchestra season is fairly conservative, even by big orchestra standards. The choice is deliberate—the DSO needs to sell tickets, and its leaders feel that its audience won’t put up with anything too radical. “The programming looks more conservative than orchestras elsewhere, but it’s not without its own slant,” says Litton. “There are major pieces of the repertoire that have somehow avoided being played in Dallas in 100 years. It’s been wonderful to conduct the Dallas premiere of Mahler 7, and Shostakovich 6 and 8.” Litton says he is “treading cautiously” with contemporary music. He looks back on his formative years, when Pierre Boulez led the New York Philharmonic, and audiences deserted it because of the emphasis on challenging contemporary scores. He doesn’t want to rock the boat. “The DSO I came to had incredibly conservative programming. You could put on the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, the ’1812 Overture,’ and ’Bolero’ every week and fill the hall. I’m looking for new music that’s entertaining. There’s a trust that’s built up, and I don’t want to break that trust.”

The DSO does recognize the need for contemporary music, however, and last season took on Lowell Liebermann as composer-in-residence. Composers-in-residence write for the orchestra and also help the music director select scores by other composers. Liebermann, a Juilliard associate of Litton’s, writes extremely accessible music. Cantrell, reviewing the composer’s Symphony No. 2, commissioned for the DSO’s centennial celebration, found it had an effect “like some New Age revival service.” He adds: “Liebermann writes new music for people who don’t like new music.” The work received a standing ovation.

Litton does have some plans to lead his audience into new music in a more intensive way. He is planning a modern music festival for June 2002, outside the regular subscription series. “There’s a fantastic amount of cutting-edge visual art in Dallas that has never been matched musically,” Litton says. He believes that a dedicated festival might attract new listeners, rather than forcing those who are unwilling to attend. Corporate underwriting will solve the sales problem. “We haven’t even publicized this, but the expression of interest from several companies has been overwhelming,” Adams says. He adds that such a festival could also tie in other performing and visual arts institutions in town, making a bigger splash.

Other issues in programming include a dearth of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. There is also the commitment to pops programming, unpopular with orchestra players, who feel that it drags down their skills, but critical to the bottom line. Dallas, which plays 30 pops concerts and 77 classical ones, has tried to mitigate the impact of pops on the players by hiring Richard Kaufman as pops conductor. This appointment not only freed Litton from dealing with that programming, but it also brought access to film scores and better arrangements through Kaufman’s Hollywood connections.

Greg Raden also feels that better guest conductors would improve the orchestra still further. Wistfully, he mentions Simon Rattle, recently named music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. More money to pay them would certainly help, but Victor Marshall, artistic administrator of the DSO, points out the difficulty of attracting the very top (read: European) conductors to do guest work anywhere other than the biggest U.S. cities. “They don’t have that much time, and when they do, they’d rather conduct smaller orchestras in Europe, which are closer to home. Also, look at the American cities in the middle of the country. You walk out the door of your hotel, and there’s no active street life.”

Orchestras take on the profile of their music directors and their communities. What ultimately counts is not so much whether an orchestra is as famous as another, but what it is doing. As Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times points out, “Assuming a certain level of playing—which these orchestras all have—I care more about what they’re playing. The New York Philharmonic plays wonderfully, but its programming has never been more boring. A lot of regional orchestras make a big mistake. They say, ’We’re not in a major city, but we’re going to show that we can play the Brahms symphonies as well as anybody.’ Why? Why not do something that is special to them?” The orchestra that most excites Tommasini these days is the San Francisco Symphony, with its heady mix of adventurous programming, quality playing, and a galvanized audience.

Whether that kind of chemistry will ultimately propel Dallas to the stature of world-class orchestra remains to be seen. “It’s so much dependent on your music director, his artistic vision, where he takes you,” says Bonelli. “Think of Ormandy, Szell, even Reiner. Those were great conductors whose artistic vision raised standards, brought pride and self-discipline. Yet that relationship is so ephemeral. We aspire to create a climate where the best can come.” He thinks that Litton will be in Dallas beyond the term of his present contract. “He’s done all we’ve asked in building the orchestra, giving compelling performances. He’s broadening his repetoire—next year, he’ll be doing more Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart. He’s popular with our audiences. Our musicians respect him. He’s committed to building a great orchestra in Dallas.”

Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine, Symphony Magazine, Early Music Magazine, Opera News, and Opera Now (London).


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