The lights came up on St. Vincent laying as a patient on stage, three violinists standing over her like surgeons. The audience howled in approval, waving their iPhones like lighters as the singer slithered off the operating table, warbling her 2009 slow jam “The Party.” It was maybe the loudest—and youngest—crowd Dallas’s Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House had ever seen.
In its inaugural year, the month-long Soluna International Music & Arts Festival has culled and combined names from all over the creative sphere—all loosely falling under the theme “Destination (America).” On the first weekend (May 8 and 9), the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist premiered a film commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO), which was accompanied by the orchestra’s performance of Miklos Rozsa’s “Andante for Springs, Op. 22a,” while L.A. photographer Alex Prager screened three films, with live accompaniment by the DSO, from scores she created with the composer Ali Helnwein.
St. Vincent’s performance—closing out the second of three weekends—was also augmented by a section of the DSO, dressed in white for the occasion. Running through a selection of anthems like “Digital Witness” and “Huey Newton,” the Dallas native tromped around on stage choreographing mechanical moves straight out of a Robert Palmer video, ripping guitar solos, and pausing only to muse on the ignominious 1993 fumble by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leon Lett.
Add to that the New York performance artist Kevin Beasley’s bold undertaking at the Dallas Museum of Art and artist Yael Bartana’s edgy film about a Brazilian megachurch, organizers Anna-Sofia Van Zweden—the young Amsterdam-born art aficionado, whose father Jaap Van Zweden conducts the DSO—and DSO CEO Jonathan Martin deemed the weekend a success, insofar that the goal was basically to trick a younger audience into classical music performances.
“This is our Coca-Cola Classic,” said Martin of the orchestra. “But we need a Red Bull.”
Beasley’s performance, titled “Black Rocker,” stood out in particular. The artist sat po-faced in a black rocking chair, which was linked up to several microphones, while participating audience members sat in front of him like children waiting for story time. They rested on seat cushions, also mic’d, and fashioned from the same textiles that as the housedresses Beasley’s grandmother used to wear. “It comes from my own experience growing up, eating hard-boiled eggs in a rocking chair,” he said. “There’s a lot happening socially and politically with law enforcement and black bodies, and I feel hesitant to speak so plainly about it. So this was me being like, ‘Maybe I just need time to sit and think.’”
According to the organizers, Beasley’s performance attracted the most visitors ever to the museum. “And it was the most diverse crowd we’d ever seen,” one museum employee whispered.
Inside the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Bartana screened Inferno, a 2013 “historical sci-fi” film about the second coming of Christ to an actual Neo-Pentecostal church in Sao Paolo that was built to the biblical specifications of the first Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the 6th century. After the screening, the orchestra performed Leonard Bernstein’s version of the Jewish mourning prayer, the Kaddish—a different version of which provided the soundtrack to the film.
I asked Bartana if she was nervous about the Dallas audience, which one might suppose was largely Christian.
“They’re actually Jewish,” she said. “They all have families in Israel. I had an encounter in the toilet; a woman started crying. They’re my mother’s age—super sweet elderly women. I have new groupies.”
Soluna’s final weekend, May 23 and 24, will feature a performance/painting by Francisco Moreno, consisting of a Japanese-made hotrod Datsun 280z—rebuilt by the Mexican-American Moreno’s car mechanic brother, and painted in dazzle camouflage—doing donuts in front of Moreno’s massive dazzle camo reworking of German-American artist Emanuel Leutze’s famous paintings Washington Crossing the Delaware. Then, Paris-by-way-of-Dallas artist Monte Laster’s Destination in Five Parts, a participatory artwork created in collaboration with local schoolchildren.