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Arts & Entertainment

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra Has a New Sound to Share

Among the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s impressive percussion collection is a pair of bells that are only ever used together in one specific piece. They’re playing it this month.
By  | |Photograph by Samantha Jane
George Nickson DSO
Bronze Star: Principal percussionist George Nickson has played all 400 of the instruments in the DSO’s collection. Samantha Jane

Since George Nickson was named principal percussionist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra three years ago, he estimates he’s played almost every one of the 400 (or more) instruments in the DSO’s percussion collection. That includes unique pieces like the butterfly cocoon rattle, which is a string of dried cocoons still containing the eggs that sounds a little bit like a maraca. And the rare glockenspiel he recently found in pieces in a shipping container. And the roughly 40 snare drums. 

“We are really spoiled with snare drums,” Nickson says, while taking me on a tour of the overflowing storage room. “Spoiled with snare drums and cymbals.” 

When plans for the Meyerson Symphony Center were drawn up by famed architect I.M. Pei in the 1980s, the musician liaison to the design team was Doug Howard, the principal percussionist at the time. He requested something most symphony halls lack: dedicated space to house the ever-growing assemblage of timpani, gongs, marimbas, and bells. These were not instruments that the musicians took home at the end of the night. In some cases, these instruments would go seasons without being played. Or, in the case of one such pair of bells, they would only ever be played together in one specific symphony: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which the DSO will perform April 8–10. 

Toll Tag

These large cast bronze bells, which are tuned to very specific pitches of C and G, are played offstage in the final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” The symphony tells the story of a young musician who falls in love while in an opium haze and is one of the more famous pieces of music from the 19th-century Romantic period. In 1984, the DSO commissioned the creation of the bells required for the piece. Because of their limited use, very few symphonies can afford to have these bells, so this pair travels throughout the country, carrying the DSO name with them. A major part of Nickson’s job is to maintain the percussion collection, some of which date back more than 100 years. Some days, he’s trying to understand the nuances of those 40 snare drums; other days, he’s unpacking the bells after they return from a trip. Most recently, they were in San Diego. “It’s like I’m managing a living museum,” Nickson says. “This is one of the most impressive percussion collections in the country, if not the world.”

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