Why establish a new orchestra, to perform in a new hall, across the street from an eminent opera company as well as one of the country’s premier symphony orchestras? It’s a good question with many possible valid responses, and I wish I had more of an answer after attending the grand opening concert of the Dallas Chamber Symphony this Tuesday evening.

Arts organizations have been struggling since even before the recent economic downturn, and orchestras in particular have seen dwindling audiences; even the nation’s best ensembles have had to think outside the box in order to sell tickets. For a newly formed group to succeed it must place itself somehow outside the mainstream, either by specialized programming or alternative delivery formats, and execute at a high level. The DCS will be fine with the latter, as their musicians and leadership are solid. However, the impression I got from their opening concert was of an attempt to establish yet another world-class orchestra in downtown Dallas, but playing standard repertoire in a conventional setting, which I don’t believe is their aim.

I am hopeful that the mission of the orchestra will be better conveyed as the season progresses; much of their programming is innovative and fresh, and there is certainly room in the city’s music scene for a good chamber orchestra. The DCS are scheduled to present several more concerts under their auspices this season, including a string quartet recital, a solo piano recital, newly-commissioned scores performed live by the orchestra to accompany the screening of classic silent films, and a season finale featuring the winner of their International Piano Concerto Competition. Led by artistic director Richard McKay and joined by mezzo-soprano Laura Mercardo-Wright, they performed on Tuesday Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the suite El amor brujo by Manuel de Falla, and concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7.

The playing itself was generally good and occasionally even better, and I would only expect the group to improve as these musicians have more opportunities to work together. Mr. McKay led a steady if conservative reading of the Mozart before El amor brujo, which is infrequently heard in its entirety but contains the famous “Ritual Fire Dance”. Here the DCS sounded energized and played with a nice variety of colors, and Ms. Mercardo-Wright sang with great poise, giving depth to the pain her character feels upon falling victim to her beloved’s infidelity. The Beethoven symphony was played with the same solidity and general good taste as the Mozart, topping off a hefty debut program.

Dallas City Performance Hall itself was one of the highlights of the evening. The attractive 750-seat concert hall features stone walls with light wood paneling, and will be perfectly versatile to accommodate anything from a solo pianist to the small orchestra. The acoustic was warm without being boomy – several balance issues could be addressed by altering the placement or angle of some players, trumpets for instance – and a large, open, split-level lobby would add more options for presentation of smaller programs, pre-concert talks, and general engagement with and among concertgoers. The space will be used for a variety of arts events, with the DCS being the highest-profile but hardly the sole occupants.

Perhaps an analogy to sports will help to convey the combination of perplexity and hope with which I view this new venture. My favorite football team, the New York Jets, find themselves at present under scrutiny. They’ve fielded an anemic offense the past few seasons, but rather than replace their insecure quarterback before this season, they instead hired as his backup Tim Tebow, another young, media-savvy quarterback without the skill set to be a truly elite player at that position. The organization planned to employ him in certain trick plays, adding depth and unpredictability to the playbook. With the first two games played, very little seen of Mr. Tebow, and their most recent outing ineffective offensively, fans and the media have questioned what exactly the Jets’ aim is in all this (aside from generating publicity).

I feel the DCS are in a similar position. They’ve made intriguing promises, but chosen a standard route – one that may not be sustainable – for their introduction to the world. Whether sharing a stadium (as the Jets do) with last year’s Superbowl champion New York Giants, or an arts district with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; whether paying two similar athletes to fill one position, or placing together musicians who already play in renowned ensembles elsewhere; or whether financing construction of City Performance Hall or the (also new) 82,500-seat MetLife Stadium, there needs to be a clear plan of action behind which to unify the public as well as the participants. I’m sure both the Jets and the DCS have some idea of their goals, but to this point, they’ve kept them pretty well to themselves.

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