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Behind the Music: Dallas’ New Chamber Symphony

Guest blogger Barbara Vance is an award-winning author and publisher who teaches narrative and media at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Her work has appeared in many formats, from literary journals, poetry collections and numerous Texas publications to alternative reality games. 

This is Part Two in my series about the Dallas Chamber Symphony, based on a conversation with Artistic Director and Conductor, Richard McKay.  Read Part One about crafting a symphonic program for Harold Lloyd’s silent film, “A Sailor-Made Man.”

  • Dallas Chamber Symphony presents Sailor-Made Man Tuesday Nov. 13. Details.

Conductor Richard McKay

If you have been following the Dallas music scene, you may have heard of the Dallas Chamber Symphony, which launched this September and is the city’s newest classical-music ensemble.

Currently comprised of thirty-six professional musicians (many of whom can also be seen performing at the Dallas and Fort Worth symphonies) the DCS offers an intimate alternative to its full-scale counterparts (which can easily be comprised of 80 or more artists.

My initial interest in the DCS began when I read they would be accompanying Harold Lloyd’s silent film, A Sailor-Made Man, which I find supremely funny.  But after meeting the organization’s founder and conductor, Richard McKay, to talk about the performance, I found myself completely intrigued by the story behind his enterprise.

Originally from Plano, McKay returned to DFW after earning his doctorate in conducting from John’s Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute.  Upon discerning a need for a chamber music experience in Dallas, he determined to fill the void, creating an entirely new symphony rather than pursuing the more traditional routes open to an up-and-coming conductor.  At a time when many symphonies are fighting audience attrition, it is a bold undertaking.

I was struck by how McKay approaches his endeavor as both a musician and a businessman, seamlessly addressing the need to balance artistic fulfillment while also satisfying the tastes of the audience and considering the market.  Indeed, his story is as much about entrepreneurship as music, and it is clear he enjoys the balance, emphasizing, “You get to wear many hats as a conductor.”

McKay labored for a year, crafting his business plan and appealing to friends and friends of friends for volunteer and financial support.  He sought out a board of advisors, recruited musicians, and designed the inaugural season.  Then there were contracts to write up, signage to create, rehearsals to schedule, programs to design and print, not to mention a myriad of administrative tasks and continuous fundraising—all of which was (and is) done by McKay and his team of dedicated volunteers.   “We are fortunate to have a reliable core of people who support us,” he told me—one of numerous comments expressing his gratitude.

Having served as Cover Conductor at both the Dallas and Boston Symphonies, McKay certainly enjoys the full orchestral experience, but says chamber music possesses its own unique benefits.

For one thing, because music selections are dictated by the size of the orchestra, reputable compositions comprised of fewer instruments are not always played by large symphonies, which more often opt instead for pieces that maximize the use of every violin, oboe, and clarinet.  Chamber ensembles thus become one of the few opportunities to perform more intimate arrangements.  “We give people a chance to experience music they might not otherwise hear,” said McKay.

Furthermore, music has the potential to be what McKay calls “more transparent” when performed by a smaller group. Because there are fewer instruments, each is heard more distinctly, allowing audiences to appreciate individual musicians more and giving performers the opportunity to take even more ownership over their performances.

Dallas Chamber Symphony Performance

Listening to him talk, it became increasingly clear that one of McKay’s underlying goals is to build a cohesive music community—one that fits the needs of both audiences and performers.  His purpose seems grounded in a sense of responsibility not only to perform great concerts, but also to develop musicians.  “I like the idea of being an orchestra that offers really good work to local artists,” he says.  “We give them another avenue to perform in.”

Indeed, his enthusiasm about working with Texas artists, like Austin-based composer Brian Satterwhite who created the score for Tuesday’s upcoming performance of Harold Lloyd’s A Sailor-Made Man, is evident in the myriad of other initiatives he is developing—including educational programs, partnerships with schools, an iPad app, and music competitions.

Good conversations always seem short, none more so than this one.  For anyone wondering whether Dallas could use a new symphony, I should say so.  We need not only more avenues for the arts, but more people like Richard McKay who possess not only a sense of responsibility to the city’s artistic community, but also the energy, creativity and the drive to strengthen it.