Arts & Culture

Review: Bryce Dessner with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Brett Mitchell, and Travis Andrews and Bryce Dessner (on electric guitars) perform Bryce Dessner’s composition “St. Carolyn by the Sea” on March 12, 2016 at Dallas City Performance Hall.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Brett Mitchell, and Travis Andrews and Bryce Dessner (on electric guitars) perform Bryce Dessner’s composition “St. Carolyn by the Sea” on March 12, 2016 at Dallas City Performance Hall. Star-Telegram

The wall between classical music and indie rock is plenty porous these days.

Artists like Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett, Shara Worden (a University of North Texas alum who performs under the moniker My Brightest Diamond) and Joanna Newsom move easily between the world of concertos and club shows, cross-pollinating to create a strain tastemaking publication Pitchfork dubbed “indie classical” four years ago.

But as The National guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner explained Saturday, on the final evening of his two-night stint with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, presented as part of the DSO’s ingenious ReMix concert series, his trajectory was actually the reverse.

(The DSO’s ReMix series is a more relaxed, informal atmosphere than DSO performances held at the Meyerson, with attendees given general admission tickets, a voucher for a free drink after the concert, and an opportunity to mingle with the performers afterward.)

As Dessner explained from the stage of the Dallas City Performance Hall, the 39-year-old musician grew up playing the flute, before being bitten by “the rock and roll bug,” but eventually earning degrees in classical composition and classical guitar. Dessner is, therefore, a man at ease in two distinctly different worlds.

Two of Dessner’s compositions (2012’s Lachrimae, for strings, and 2011’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, for the full orchestra) were on the hour-long program conducted by guest maestro Brett Mitchell Saturday, complemented by Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa for string chamber orchestra and Adam Schoenberg’s Finding Rothko.

Orawa was a finely wrought opener, its cascading strings evoking a babbling brook. The orchestra, situated within one of the most acoustically stunning rooms in North Texas, nimbly worked through the roughly 10-minute composition, its playing crisp yet propulsive, surging from Orawa’s light, brisk opening moments to its thunderous finale.

Finding Rothko proved equally compelling, its inspiration drawn from a series of Mark Rothko paintings the composer Schoenberg observed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A quartet of movements defined by color — “Red,” “Orange,” “Yellow” and “Wine” — the full orchestra achieved what Mitchell described in his brief, pre-performance remarks as Schoenberg’s desire to make the visual auditory. Vivid swells of sound rolled forth, by turns dissonant and spectral, but always pulsing with life and luminosity.

After Bryce Dessner introduced his pair of works, the orchestra set about realizing Lachrimae, a subtly morose creation that Dessner wryly observed shared some spiritual DNA with the National’s oeuvre — as he said, “It’s a sad song” — but nevertheless blended the sweet and severe, reveling in pizzicato flourishes and building to a grand conclusion.

Dessner and Travis Andrews (filling in for Dessner’s brother, Aaron, originally scheduled to appear, but called away at the last minute for a family emergency) joined the DSO for the final number, St. Carolyn by the Sea. Although Dessner and Andrews were performing on electric guitar, and occasionally soloed, they did not seek out the spotlight.

Instead, the pair was subsumed by the orchestra, apart from it, but also a part of it. The effect was mildly hypnotic — the occasional hint of serrated, amplified guitar poking through the smooth sweep of strings, brass and woodwinds — and gave the composition, full of dramatic swells, a powerful undertow.

Taken together, the program proved to be a fascinating fusion of artistic disciplines.

It also served as a reminder, in a somewhat incongrous setting, of rock’s eternal promise of youth — the oldest piece performed Saturday was from 1986 — and how even a genre perceived as staid and set in its ways can be open to thrilling new avenues of expression, and, in the process, attract audiences that might never otherwise venture inside a proper concert hall.

Preston Jones: 817-390-7713, @prestonjones

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