Last Night We Learned Dr. Caligari's Twist Ending: Dallas Needs Chamber Symphony

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At last night's Dallas Chamber Symphony performance a film screen illuminated the front of City Performance Hall. One of cinema's first haunts -- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, came alive again on its 93rd birthday. Below it, a tidy cluster of classical musicians plucked their strings, building suspense.

It was the newest offering in the recent trend of silent film resurrections, where a group scores an old film, then reinvigorates it by playing live -- airing out classics for an all-talkie generation. It's something that the Dallas Chamber Symphony has latched onto in its first year of programming, this being the second of such commissioned works and only the fourth presentation offered to-date by the start-up non-profit.

It's a curious season schedule in whole. So far it's only featured one test drive performance where we saw a broader view of the Chamber's skill set. When they ripped through that content -- a September introductory show consisting of Mozart, Falla and Beethoven, I was floored. Who are these people? What fashionable otherworld symphony did they materialize from? They're so young: Shouldn't they be playing work by modern composers, tapping into the experimental music market?

Naw. Choosing a conventional collection as an opener was a bolder move. It was like watching a new kid pick a fight with the biggest, oldest kid at school and winning. They informed us that they love those compositions, and can destroy them. Now that that's settled, they'd like to move on and have a little fun.

They achieved that last night, and gave us a refreshing detour from the sometimes masturbatory live score phenomenon, which when handled by lessor groups with weaker music, tends to devolve into smelly jam band territory. But there, in that acoustically stunning performance hall, each squeal and knock resonated in time with the wobbly, askew film and its surreal cut-paper backdrop.

There were points where I wondered if the score, penned by Austin composer Brian Satterwhite, was a bit too controlled. Considering Caligari's bendingly psychopathic components and artfully avant-garde design, and that this work was commissioned specifically for this astonishing group of string musicians in this room of limitless acoustic possibilities, I would have liked it to get a little stranger. Maybe allowed concertmaster and first violin Jing Wang to really freak us out, sonically?

I kept waiting for that.

Still, Satterwhite's score built to its most elaborate during moments of sentimentality and stripped down to its barest tonal dressing during times of tension, a torch song ode to the film and the era that he saluted.

There were a lot of excited whispers and shoulder grabs as people stood up to leave. I rarely see crowds so invigorated after classical productions. Shows like this reinforce that I'm on board; I'll see anything this group and its artistic director Richard McKay tries, even if I don't fully comprehend their long term vision just yet. I trust them, and I believe we need them.

Their addition to the local fine arts scene is representative of a larger movement, where 20 and 30-somethings who love the arts refuse to exclusively support the old standards. We want arias in bars. Symphony with film. And robot operas.

Dallas, with all of its societal pretenses, is beginning to take notice and allow some wiggle room for expansion projects like McKay's. That's a good thing. If we want to keep classical music relevant, we need to fuse it naturally with our other passions. It should be an accompaniment to our lives, not just a fancy auditory meal gobbled up occasionally while wearing fine clothes. The Dallas Chamber Symphony is making that happen.


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