The Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced plans this week for Soluna International Music & Arts Festival, which will take place throughout April. It’s the festival’s fifth year and it’s drawing acclaim for bringing local artists and groups together with national acts to create new works.
In State of the Arts this week, I talked to Kim Noltemy, the DSO’s President and CEO, about this year’s plan.
Soluna takes place over a full month, What makes this more than just a series of events. What makes it an actual festival?
Well, I would say it’s the connection between the Dallas Symphony and music in general to all the various art forms around the city. And that’s what we’re trying to do is connect music in a meaningful way with the activities of our colleagues and also bringing in new artists and dancers and musicians from around the country to connect with our artists here in Dallas.
When you talk about your colleagues you’re talking about the other arts institutions around town. Collaboration is really a big part of this.
Absolutely. Soluna is a festival that the Dallas Symphony produces but it really would be nothing without the museums, the theater, the opera. Individual artists and musicians around Dallas. It’s really a unique event in that we are trying to unify the arts community.
Why take it on? It’s a huge project.
Well, I truly believe that classical music needs to really go outside its boundaries and work in partnership with other art forms.
And our new music director, Fabio Luisi, also believes that. He believes in adding a visual dimension to concerts. He believes in commissioning works that bring in different components like dance and visual arts.
And I believe that is the future of what we need to do to connect with the most people possible in Dallas and beyond.
Let’s talk about what that’s going to look like. Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard is premiering a new work called “Caravan.” It’s going to include dance and video projection. And it’s described as an exploration of art and racial healing.
Yes, so the piece is really highlighting almost a Black Lives Matter theme, more focused on black men than black women. But certainly, it’s highlighting one of the important social issues of our time. And we all know things are happening in this country that really shouldn’t be happening. This piece really highlights that in a positive way – what is the path to the future. And if we all know, then we can make it better together – art about it, but also talking about it, is an important piece of that.
There’s going to be a discussion, as well as a performance.
That’s correct. I think that any large city in America needs to have these conversations. And this is how we move to the next step in fairness and equity.
The work “Anthracite Fields” will also be performed. And composer Julia Wolfe won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. It’s about Pennsylvania coal mining.
Well, it’s interesting because this is a topic that maybe people would not feel is as relevant to them. But in a way it is relevant to everyone because it is a changing world, and what our parents did and what we grew up with isn’t isn’t necessarily what the millennials and the next generation are thinking about and feeling. . In a way, that’s the overarching theme and that is important for us all to think about in our own way. And the displacement of people, in work, and then, the effects of certain work on environment, and lives and health – all of these things resonate with all of us. I think we can all think of examples of this in our current lives.
Racial justice, coal mining, these aren’t things you normally associate with a night at the symphony.
It’s true, and certainly there are many aspects of Soluna that are more fun and whimsical as well. But we think that having a serious component that is excellent art and music is something that shouldn’t be overlooked just to have a fun festival. So we want to use the Dallas Symphony and this festival as a way to highlight important issues of the day. And we have our own strategic plan with key initiatives like our Southern Dallas effort and our women in classical music. And we want to tie all of that work that we do on a daily basis in with the themes of Soluna as well
And why is all of that so important for the Symphony to be doing? The work in Southern Dallas is bringing music lessons to students. You’re also working on increasing representation of women at the podium and within the orchestra. Why is that the symphony’s job?
Well, I would say if any orchestra wants to be important to their city or their community, they need to be involved in so many things beyond playing great music, which the Dallas Symphony does, in a beautiful space, which the Meyerson is.
But what about all those people that don’t know about the Meyerson? And what about all those people who are intimidated and afraid and didn’t have classical music or orchestral music in their background? How do you motivate them to learn about it and get excited about it?
It’s through going out in the community and being part of the community and connecting our musicians as human beings with people living around the Dallas metroplex.
And I would say that we are so fortunate, all of us who work in this business, because we know the power of music to transform lives. We have seen it transform thousands and thousands of lives. And when you know that, you need to bring that to as many people as possible. And that’s what it’s about.
And in Southern Dallas, it’s an area that hasn’t been given the kinds of music programs that exist in the suburbs, or even in other sections of the city. So we thought we would start there. Because we want to give every child in Southern Dallas who wants a chance to play an instrument, to get that chance, and to have the small group or private lessons that they deserve in order to see if this is something for them in the long run.
Fabio Luisi will also be making his debut during Soluna. This is such a huge moment for the Orchestra. Is it going to be overshadowed by everything else going on during the month?
Well, it’s funny that you say that because Fabio himself was so thrilled that his first concerts after being named music director were going to be during Soluna. And in fact they were not originally going to be Fabio’s concerts. But we said, no, if Fabio can come, let’s do this. And so, he put together a great program, featuring a work by an African American composer, and of course, it’s the typical program we like to put together that has a balance of different elements of music people know and love, and some new music.
But Fabio loves this whole idea of Soluna, the visual arts and the dance. So he’s excited to be around, and to be part of this and to see what we’re doing.
The various events at Soluna involve elements of classical music, popular music, art, projection, dance. Why is it so important to work across genres?
Well, I think we live in a visual world now. While someone like me, and many of the subscribers of the Dallas Symphony, who are connected with the instruments and the players, because we know the people and we know the details about everything, we can see it as a visual art form. But a lot of people can’t, because they don’t have those visual connections.
Of course, it’s our job in general to build those visual connections.
In addition to that, if you don’t have any background whatsoever in classical music, but you like jazz or you like popular music, and we can demonstrate how our musicians can fit into that world, suddenly that opens the door to the idea that “Wow, this is something I might like to try in another way.”
At the Meyerson or at a park or wherever.
You’ve said before a big part of your job is selling tickets. How does Soluna help you do that?
Well, I think Soluna is the best audience development tool that we have.
What’s your best marketing? Well, it’s getting someone to attend something at a low entry point, meaning financially, or it’s in a place that’s easy for them to go to, or they stumble upon it – there’s lots of ways – and they love it. And that is the best tool to sell someone on the Dallas Symphony in the future – through experiential marketing.
You mention that other art forms can help people access classical music. But having that in the Meyerson has been somewhat controversial in the past. How do you bring along a more traditional audience as you reach out to some of these newer audiences?
It is something that has to happen gradually with the traditional audience member, because obviously, they love the art form in its purest sense. And that’s great, and we’re so grateful for that. But at the same time, we need to be able to push the envelope a little bit.
A simple example is something like Mussorgsky’s “Picture’s At An Exhibition,” where the orchestra could play and you could have the images projected above the stage. Almost any traditional audience member would say, “Oh that’s beautiful. That enhances this concert.” So that’s kind of a baby step, in a way.
But then adding elements that distract people from watching the orchestra to watching singers or artists or whatever, is kind of a fine line that you have to have the right balance.
So we are foremost an orchestra. We believe, truly, that this is a great art form. They’re fantastic musicians. We’re so fortunate that this city of Dallas has this caliber of musicians playing in this ensemble.
But at the same time we need to understand that the world has changed, and we need to meet people where they are. And so that means we meet the traditional audiences where they are and we meet the newer audiences where they are.
And Soluna gives us a vehicle to really be nontraditional for several weeks and see how many new people we can get in. And also have our regular attendees , say, well, I’ll try that. It’s not something I’d typically go to but
I’ll go see that and see what I think. They some times love it, and they sometimes chuckle and say, I don’t know why I went. But that’s ok. It’s something for everyone.
You are coming up on your one year anniversary this year. What’s been your biggest challenge?
Well, I think the biggest challenge in coming into a new place, after being in one city for decades…
You were in Boston.
Yes, I was in Boston for almost my whole live, but in my previous job for 21 years. And I knew everybody in the city and I knew everything that was going on, and I had all the connections. So to come into a new city and meet everyone and learn how things work and understand the areas we need to work on and be better at, that’s not a musical thing – that’s the music director’s job – it’s really a business thing. It’s an audience engagement, education, it’s all of those things. If we want to be the best Dallas Symphony we can be, we need to listen to what people are saying to us and find a way to connect with all the citizens of Dallas in a way that hasn’t been done in the past.
As Soluna grows – it’s in its fifth year – and the orchestra starts reaching out in ways it hasn’t before, in South Dallas and following through on initiatives around women, that’s a lot of new direction for the members of the orchestra. How are they reacting?
The orchestra’s been incredibly supportive of the new initiatives. Of course, these big, important ideas, I was concerned that all of the constituents, the board and the staff, would find it difficult to change directions in this way.
In the end, people have been so supportive and excited, and really jumping in. Orchestra members talk to me on a weekly basis on what they can do to be a part of this. Everybody seems to want to be involved and its very rewarding and exciting.