The Dallas Chamber Symphony Lured Us In With Slapstick. Then, it Pulled the Rug Out.

thescarecrow.jpg
Oh, Keaton, you charmer.
I think most of us went to the City Performance Hall last night for the slapstick. I'm not ashamed to say it: I love Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin.

I love big guy/ little guy moments.

I love seeing people fall through trap doors and become the jogging prisoners of treadmill carpets.

So you tell me the Dallas Chamber Symphony's performing three original compositions for Ask Father, By the Sea and The Scarecrow and I'm there. That's because I'm a reasonable thinking human.

Those offerings made up the evening's second half, and were great -- especially Alain Mayrand's contribution to the Harold Lloyd flick, which proved unapologetically entertaining on every front. But what caught me most about last night's concert was the cunning way DCS blended its content. Beginning in a horseshoe shape, framing a tinkling harpsichord, DCS opened with Bach's accessible and familiar Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Then, it switched gears, pulling out Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings -- a deep cut, even for Britten's songbook -- and especially for an audience who, much like me, had worked a full day and was ready to absorb a little physical humor.

And man, am I glad they played that freaky dark Serenade.

Now, Britten's an interesting cat. A pacifist and war-dodger whose early career involved writing scores for film, theater and radio, he went on to become a highly divisive, but gifted composer for symphony, opera and smaller ensemble pieces. He wrote work for all social classes and children, kept close only those who pledged extreme loyalty, referred to critics as "vermin, living on others' leavings" and posthumously became a point of musical inspiration for modern filmmakers like Wes Anderson, who set last year's Moonrise Kingdom to Britten's music, specifically to his children's opera Noye's Fludde.

The 100th anniversary of Britten's birthday is this Friday, November 22, so Dallas Chamber Symphony marked the occasion with this uncommon inclusion in an otherwise upbeat night of music.

Britten wrote Serenade, a composition of six super-duperly British poems, for his partner in music and life, the tenor Peter Pears, and to showcase the talent of young horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. It's a challenging length of music, so stripped down that the slightest falter is immediately evident. It's eerily nocturnal and spotlights one French horn and one tenor, with orchestral strings tackling the rest.

It seems that here, the DCS' Artistic Director and Conductor Richard McKay saw a chance to pass Britten's torch along and prove that with the right talent holding its spit-channeled valves, a French horn solo can still captivate. Last night it did, thanks to Dallas-based player and educator, Katie Wolber, who kept the instrument's rich tones in check whether jumping muted octaves or sliding through Britten's warbly dark dissonance.

The pointed intentionality of last night's programming, which initially looked like a musical mishmash, was to breathe new life into the old. And the structure of it was brilliant: "Here's something you'll know. Here's something you should know. And here's something fun, so you leave feeling elated." That level of curation is invaluable, and Dallas is noticing. Only in its second season, DCS went from playing to a beautiful, but mostly empty concert hall to what we saw last night: a nearly capacity audience, at least in the venue's lower level.

DCS' next concert is February 25, and features Saint-Saëns popular "Carnival of the Animals" -- complete with dancers -- and Joseph Schwantner's "Distant Runes & Incantations." It closes out with another live score to film starring the wonderful Buster Keaton, Sherlock Jr. Considering last night's attendance, you should buy those seats in advance.

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