Review: Great Performances Festival: Brahms and Dvorak Concert 1 | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

Worlds Old and New

The Fort Worth Symphony's exploration of Brahms and Dvořák in the Great Performances festival kicks off with mixed results.

published Saturday, August 23, 2014

Photo: Schmidt Artists
August Hadelich

Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony opened its now traditional three-concert preseason festival on Friday evening with some thoughtful, and mostly successful, performances. This year they are exploring the relationship between Johannes Brahms as mentor of the younger Antonín Dvořák, although little was made of that relationship other than featuring works by the two composers. The listener was left to discern how these works related.

One of the points of departure between the two composers was the large and looming presence of the music of Richard Wagner. Brahms, who strove for classical elegance, was cast as the anti-Wagner as the music world chose sides. Brahms wrote for Beethoven’s orchestra while Wagner used multiples of every interment he could find; even inventing some where he found a sonic hole. Further, Brahms wrote in a conservative musical language that borders on the austere while Wagner pushed the boundaries of tonality to the breaking point. His overture to Tristan is widely considered to be the first atonal—meaning not grounded in a tonal center—composition. (A favorite grad school exercise is to try and do a harmonic analysis, shoehorning it into a tonal structure, which fits about as well as the ugly stepsister’s foot in the glass slipper.) 

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
Antonin Dvorak

Thus, it is of some interest that Musical Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya chose Dvořák’s Othello Overture to open the series. The influence of Wagner infuses this work from start to finish, from one trembling suspension to another and even something that sounds like the magic fire music poking out of the Czech-influenced rhythms and melodic characteristics. It proved to be the best performance on the program, regardless of some sloppy playing that could easily be attributed to back-to-school dusting off of cobwebs. 

Harth-Bedoya gave it a thoughtful reading, neither accentuating the Wagnerisms nor ignoring them. As a result the overture sounded quite different than in performances that lean more ambiguously. What came out, surprisingly, was harmonic hints of Debussy, which is not usually listed as an influence on Dvořák’s music.  Debussy’s early works, which Dvořák must have known, foreshadowed his harmonic experimentations, which took the expansion of tonality in a completely different, more benign, direction from Wagner’s overheated romanticism. Once again, Harth-Bedoya didn’t linger over this influence either, so what we heard was, well, Dvořák, with his influences tamed. 

The Brahms Violin Concerto is a favorite of violinists and audiences alike. It always amazes to hear the gorgeous melody he creates in the opening by simply going up and down an arpeggio.  The brilliant young violinist Augustin Hadelich gave it a serious reading without actuating any of the fireworks. Thus, the overall effect was slightly muted and a little stuffy. His decision to play the out-of-context cadenza by Fritz Kreisler didn’t help. It is too long for one thing and sounds busy rather than virtuosic. But there is no denying Hadelich’s considerable talent and musicianship. His lickety-split bravura performance of Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 was jaw dropping and brought the almost too perfect and glib performances of Michael Rabin to mind. 

Harth-Bedoya didn’t help him much. He was frequently too loud, which required Hadelich to work harder than was necessary. Right from the start, the evocative opening, which is marked mezzo-piano and drops softer soon thereafter, was nearly at the forte level, which doesn’t arrive until 16 measures into the introduction. Instead the orchestra rose to a fortissimo, something Brahms rarely used, barely a minute into the concerto. 

Dvořák’s New World Symphony is high on the list of the most frequently performed symphonies in the repertoire. Its many references to the music Dvořák discovered while teaching in New York are legendary, from African-American spirituals to the ceremonial dance rhythms of Native Americans (as found in the scherzo.) None of these were copied from the original sources. Instead, Dvořák absorbed their essence and adapted it into his own Czech folk-influenced style.  The result is neither one nor the other but the overall effect achieves the kind of rare musical magic that catapulted it to the fame it will always enjoy.  Even the most jaded in the audience, who groan “not another performance of the New World” before it starts, will always be captured in spite of themselves. 

Such was the case in this performance, although the piece got little help from Harth-Bedoya. Right from the beginning, which wasn’t (but needs to be) subdivided so that its sharp offbeat edges sound out, it was a mushy performance. It lacked rhythmic vitality throughout which made it feel longer than it is. 

All its beauties still shined through. The stunning English horn solo was beautifully played but it is unclear who played it. In fact, substitute players abounded and they are never announced. Perhaps those with binoculars or sharper eyes than this writer possesses could tell who was playing what. 

It is no easy task to hold back an orchestra so as to keep the top dynamic levels for the really big moments. Harth-Bedoya half-heartedly tried to make this happen, but he only suggested when commands were necessary. As a result, it sounded like the composer wrote one too many endings when they finally got to the last allegro con fuoco

The fuoco account was overdrawn by then.


The Brahms and Dvořák schedule continues with the following concerts:


7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Conductor

Zandra McMaster, Mezzo Soprano

  • Brahms | Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
  • Dvorák | Biblical Songs
  • Brahms | Selections from Hungarian Dances
  • Dvorák | Selections from Slavonic Dances


7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Conductor

Augustin Hadelich, Violin

  • Brahms | Tragic Overture
  • Dvorák | Violin Concerto
  • Brahms | Symphony No. 1, Op. 68
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Worlds Old and New
The Fort Worth Symphony's exploration of Brahms and Dvořák in the Great Performances festival kicks off with mixed results.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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