Fort Worth — For those of you who complain that orchestra soloists are either a pianist or violinist, this is your lucky weekend. The Fort Worth Symphony is presenting the 26-year-old Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and her performance on Friday was nothing short of amazing.
She plays two selections. One is the standard of the repertoire, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat Major. Every trumpeter on the planet plays this concerto, from students on up. Yet, in the hands of a truly great artist, this concerto shines anew, reminding you that it is a great masterpiece. In this manner, it is similar to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto or Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Such was the case on Friday.
Thing Helseth produced a great variety of sounds, from the usual brilliant trumpet call to an almost vocal singing line of great beauty. Her articulation was also exceptional. Once again, vocalization came to mind as she spun smoothly slurred phrases. This is not a concerto full of flights of virtuosity, but her cadenza hinted at her technical prowess. It would be terrific to have her return with a concerto like the one by John Williams or Peter Maxwell Davies’ wild ride of a concerto.
Her second selection was more ordinary: the trumpet concerto by Armenian composer and conductor Alexander Grigori Arutiunian. Dating from 1950, it is one of the composer’s best-known works and its lush, unapologetic romanticism, with slightly dated hints of sweeping ‘50s movie scores, always impresses. However, perhaps because its three movements are played without a pause, it seems to ramble. Thing Helseth made an excellent case for the concerto and left us with a desire to give it another hearing.
Bravo to the Fort Worth Symphony for its commitment to new music and to having a composer-in-residence. Who else does this around here? Anyone? I’m listening…
This season, it is the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy in the seat and the concert opened with an early work, provocatively titled The Vandal. In pre-performance remarks, the composer said that he envisioned that a bit of music would take over the work as a whole “like a virus.” He also compared it to graffiti and Monteverdi (as unlikely a pairing as one could imagine). Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya called it “funky.”
It was hard to see all of this in the results, which was more in the standard minimalist school than some wild infection. Often, there are two layers, one energetically perking along and the other serenely floating above, Rhythmically, it sounds quite complex, but it appears that this is created more by the placements of accents rather than constant meter shifts. This piece is not about melodic materials—don’t expect a tune to stick in your head—but rather about rhythm, and in this it succeeds. Dennehy uses the orchestra as a percussion instrument.
The program ends with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a work that still sounds revolutionary even today. Leonard Bernstein, in his Young Peoples Concerts called it psychedelic: “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
Berlioz himself says this: “A young musician of a morbidly sensitive nature and a feverish imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of lovesick despair. The narcotic dose, too weak to cause death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his feelings, sensations and memories are translated by his sick brain into musical thoughts and images.” (Translation from the same Young Person Concert script.)
Even after our era of acid music, Berlioz’s symphony still sounds radical and Harth-Bedoya did a marvelous job of bringing out every detail and orchestral color. By the way, he has been exemplary all season with his tendency to go off the rails completely under control. You can hear, as well as see, this improvement in the tighter performances he delivers with the orchestra. Best yet, in perfecting his baton and podium technique, he didn’t lose any of his best qualities. He is still just as vibrant, expressive and exciting to watch.
While many may have a quibble here or there with his tempi, this performance of the Berlioz was first class from beginning to end. The only misstep was in the third movement, where two shepherds call out with their Ranz des Vaches or Kuhreihen, a signature alpine tune played on a horn as they moved their flocks. Berlioz recreates this by having an offstage oboe and English horn. It was not such a great idea to put the offstage oboe in the audience. First of all, the sound was too “present” and not in the distance. Secondly, her presence was distracting, as was the moving of her and her music stand in an out.
That aside, the orchestra responded to Harth-Bedoya and delivered a stellar performance. This is a showpiece for an orchestra and a challenge to perform. On Friday evening, the Fort Worth Symphony delivered as fine a performance of this fantastic symphony as they have of anything all season long.