Dallas in mid-May feels hotter, muggier, and stickier than Brooklyn, hovering around 90 degrees but not yet reaching the months-long, three-digit sweltering summer that Texans have come begrudgingly to accept. There are plenty of places to stay cool in this town, though. The old money accrued from thousands of steers has been transformed into architectural marvels made of mirrors, and the city’s celebrated largest contiguous urban arts district in the nation includes air-conditioned cultural sanctuaries like the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Meyerson Symphony Center. As a cultural crawl, the Dallas Arts District reflects the city’s longstanding fine arts patronage back upon its residents.
Despite all this adjacent culture, though, interdisciplinary collaboration has taken some time to bloom. A key player in the effort to change this has been the Dallas Symphony Orchestra through its Soluna International Music & Arts Festival, now in its fifth year, and consciously meant to change Dallas’s narrative as a collector-driven scene.
At this year’s iteration, the fruits of Soluna’s labors are everywhere. If last year’s programming included work of different disciplines that checked many boxes, but didn’t seem to be talking to each other, this year’s flagship events resonated in concert, showcasing the daring programming legacy that DSO music director Jaap van Zweden has cultivated over his decade with the orchestra. Patrons and casual listeners alike were reminded that – despite Van Zweden leaving Dallas to become the New York Philharmonic’s music director next season – the city’s cultural scene will continue to flourish.
There was no more stark an example of on display than when Israeli performance artist Naama Tsabar presented the world premiere of her Melodies of Certain Damage on the vast marble floor of the Meyerson Symphony Center lobby. Tsabar and a few collaborators alternated between four stations of deconstructed electric guitars strung with piano strings, plucking and activating them with fingers and beer bottles to create an ambient soundscape that appeared spontaneous and improvisational only on the surface.
There was much to take away from Tsabar’s new work, wherein the performers created new sounds with the exploratory wonder of kids in a sandbox. The audience interacted with (and mostly filmed) them, creating a scene that starkly portrayed the vast chasm between those making work and those content to document or voyeur.
I’d last seen Tsabar’s work in October, covering Hudson’s Basilica Soundscape festival for National Sawdust Log. That performance, which used two guitars attached together, reminded audiences that there is actionable intention behind noise, not passivity. Similarly valuable lessons were taught in the Meyerson lobby, where donors’ names adorned glass plaques on the walls. In such an esteemed space, Tsabar’s ambient, sometimes atonal sounds qualified as a revolutionary act.
More subtle revolutions happened at Soluna, too. Earlier that night, Van Zweden conducted his latest program of the DSO’s popular Remix series, wherein pieces by composers from vastly different schools are performed side by side. Sandwiched between Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso and Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp on the program, associate concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert carried the orchestra through Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto with requisite grace and lyricism, emphasizing Berg’s knack for juxtaposing Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional style with moments of flowingly lush tonality.
“There is an overall impression of the fact that we just play Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven here, and that’s a little strange,” Van Zweden told National Sawdust Log the next day in his office, its bookshelves adorned with scores in dark green binders telling the story of his decade-long tenure in Dallas.
“We did some really interesting things here in the last 10 years,” he says, adding that this month alone the orchestra presents the Berg, Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, and the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
The one thing that annoyed him, he says, is when “people would say whatever comes from Dallas cannot be the best of the best.” He continues, “This town worked so hard [over] the last half century from what was a really traumatic moment in the history of Dallas with [the assassination of] JFK. It is a very warm town.”
As a crucial part of changing that narrative, Van Zweden has done more than just programming and conducting adventurous performances. As the father of an autistic child, van Zweden has become tremendously involved in autism charities and organizations, which led him deeper into discovering the power that music therapy has on cultivating awareness and recognition to facilitate personal development. This, in turn, eventually birthed Soluna’s annual Music and the Brain symposium, wherein doctors and researchers with musical acumen come together with performers to present their findings on the power of music to cultivate and repair neural pathways.
This year’s edition saw the relationship between childhood development and musical education deeply explored. While much of the research wasn’t new, it nonetheless illuminated the deep relationship between Dallas’s creative and scientific communities. One presenter spoke to the therapeutic power that the organization of an orchestra, or some similar sort of musical congregation, has on both audience and performer.
Van Zweden, who has conducted every Wagner opera over the course of his illustrious career, says that by opening up such conversations between the fine arts and scientific communities, Soluna bridges the connection between brain and heart.
He also unpacked the unexpected ways that the power of musical congregation can reveal itself. Performing Wagner with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (where he also serves as music director) had a similar effect on the players, he says, adding that the power of Wagner’s compositions give his work merit despite his well-documented anti-semitism: the prototypical example of separating the artist from the art.
“When you have Mahler, and you have Bruckner, Mahler was looking for God, and Bruckner found him, in a way,” Van Zweden says. “Mahler was always talking about emotions, Bruckner is talking about beauty. And Wagner is actually going from one world into the other world: emotions to beauty. So he combines them a little bit, here and there. I learned that if an orchestra plays Wagner really well, it has an extra dimension. It gives the players an extra layer. So the orchestra is incredibly improved in Hong Kong, for instance, by playing these operas.”
Van Zweden looks forward to his inaugural year as music director for the New York Philharmonic, beginning with the 2018-19 season. But he stresses that his influence on the orchestra’s programming can be felt this season, too, during his time as music director designate. When the Philharmonic asked him to emphasize modern composers, for instance, Van Zweden pointed out the glaring fact that the New York Philharmonic had never performed a Philip Glass piece.
“They had their mouth full about me not doing contemporary music, and then I bring Glass there,” he says. “Whether you like him or don’t like him, he’s a genius and a remarkable person. And he’s a New Yorker, but they’ve never played a piece by this great composer? It’s very important that Philip Glass was finally onstage with the New York Philharmonic, and it just happened this season. I had to bring his double concerto for two pianos about eight months ago.”
No flirtatious wink at new music, Van Zweden’s inaugural season is a wholehearted and unapologetic embrace. One of his upcoming programming pillars with the Philharmonic, “The Art of Andriessen,” focuses on the work of living Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, and features a centerpiece commission, Agamemnon. Van Zweden explains that he once played violin in one of Andriessen’s groups in the ’70s, when the composer’s longstanding dislike for the orchestral gentry of the day fueled his experimentation with nontraditional ensembles.
Andriessen swore he never would write for orchestra. Then in 2013, he finally composed a piece for Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mysteriën. The experience proved traumatic: Mariss Janssons, the conductor, didn’t like the piece much, and Andriessen brought his distaste for orchestras into the rehearsals.
But Van Zweden loved it. “There is nothing so inspiring for a conductor than to work with a living composer,” he says. “The problem for us conductors is that we always have to guess: what did they want? For me, working with living composers is a very inspiring and happy moment.” Of Andriessen, he adds, “I hope that he will be in the hall when we rehearse, and he can adjust things in his own music: he can adjust the orchestra, he can adjust what he hears, and even adjust how I go to it. It’s going to be his moment and his piece.”
Meanwhile, the Dallas Symphony, Soluna, and the city that both call home will have more than enough of Van Zweden’s cultural legacy intact to keep up its status as one of the world’s greatest cities for classical music. Part of Soluna’s great gift to Dallas is that its programming infuses the same creative DNA of a great ensemble performance—like musical conversation, working toward a communal goal and listening to what’s happening around you—into art that’s happening all around the city.
Be it through L.A.-based sculptor and recording artist Sebastian Leon’s sound sculpture The Diffracted Symphony playing on loop at NorthPark Center, or rapper Nas performing a set with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as part of a night dedicated to merging musical idioms, the festival has successfully activated the cross-collaborative spirit among a dizzying array of patron-bolstered fine arts institutions, reminding them what it looks like when they invest time and energy on projects outside the comfort zone of their main medium.
“Making music is nothing else than having an affair, on-stage,” Van Zweden says. “Can you have a relation through music without communication? No. Communication is love, that’s what it is. Not love for each other, but love for the music.”
Once again articulating this connection between music and the heart leads Van Zweden to propose that the function of an orchestra stands as a prototypical model for the creative exchange.
“An orchestra is a very strange thing,” he says. “On one hand, they want to have a very clear conductor who really knows what he wants. On the other hand, they want to have a communication about how they feel. It’s a very thin line—but this thin line is also very joyful. When I do a Mahler symphony with the New York Philharmonic, for instance, I bring my own world, my own legacy, and my own DNA from years of playing with and conducting these people onstage. But they also bring that onstage.
“You meet each other in the rehearsal time. It’s giving and taking. Not just, ‘I tell you to do this,’ and that’s it. It is the task to inspire them, to tell them, so they agree. And sometimes if they don’t, and they show by playing with this other timing or something, sometimes it’s inspiring, and I think that it’s good what we are doing—let’s leave it. It’s giving and taking.”
To that end, there is a give and take happening between our cities, too. The DSO is giving the New York Philharmonic a fearless, eclectic new Music Director, and taking a decade of wisdom about how creative relationships with composers, performers, and patrons can inspire work that reverberates far beyond the concert hall.
The Soluna International Music & Arts Festival runs through May 28 in Dallas; mydso.com/soluna
Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural leavings for Vulture, Newsweek, No Depression, and other publications.