Arts & Life Arts Columnists Scott Cantrell

Scott Cantrell

Dallas Chamber Symphony has fun with Buster Keaton film

The Dallas Chamber Symphony certainly put on a fun concert Monday night at the Dallas City Performance Hall. The program’s three pieces, composed between 1921 and 2015 and scored for unusual ensembles, traced a nifty stylistic trajectory.

The tone was set by Paul Hindemith’s 1921 Kammermusik No. 1, virtually reveling in the rowdiness of Weimar Republic Germany. Composed for 12 instruments — winds, strings, a trumpet, piano, accordion (here replaced by harmonium) and percussion — it scampers and flourishes, with room for dreamy wreathings of winds in the slow movement. You know it’s just about over, as artistic director Richard McKay pointed out in a spoken introduction, when a siren cuts loose.

From American composer Paul Moravec, born in 1957, came the 2003 Chamber Symphony, scored for flute, oboe, horn, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Here, too, is much sheer energy, the busy textures replete with shifting meters and dancing syncopations. The slow movement, marked “Slow, Singing, Rubato,” is icily atmospheric. Although the music doesn’t sound like Hindemith, it has a bit of the German composer’s DNA.

The Dallas Chamber Symphony has made a cause of performing films, often old silent ones, with new musical accompaniments. This time, the film was Buster Keaton’s The Goat, dating from the same year as the Hindemith.

Commissioned by the Dallas Chamber Symphony, composer Jon Kull has crafted a witty evocation of film scores that would have been played by live theater orchestras before the talkies. As the movie was projected on a large screen over the stage, the music captured the chases, pratfalls and mischief in idioms that Keaton would recognize.

Depending on instrumentation, the performances drew upon 14 mostly youngish and obviously well-trained musicians. Ensemble and string intonation loosened slightly at a couple of spots in the Hindemith, but in general the playing — in some very tricky music — was quite accomplished.

Not a demonstrative conductor, McKay gave the clear beats this music needed. His one misjudgment was a lugubrious tempo that sucked the life out of Hindemith’s third movement.

In addition, he and Kull added to the growing plague of too much rambling talk from the stage; such comments should sound spontaneous but be carefully prepared and tightly edited. Restless children in the audience supplied distraction during the performances.

Scott Cantrell, former classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News, has also written for The New York Times and numerous music magazines.

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