Fort Worth — The Great Performances series presented by the Fort Worth Symphony is always the kick-off for the season in the Metroplex and usually launches with some fireworks. This year, Musical Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya chose to play the music of Brahms and Dvořák—hardly unexplored territory. The first concert, reviewed here, didn’t explore the connection as well as the last two.
Brahms referred Dvořák to his publisher and, after the success of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, asked Dvořák for some from his country. The Slavonic Dances were the result. These were not original music, but interpretations of authentic folk melodies. In addition, Brahms so admired Dvořák’s Cello Concerto that, near the end of his life, he mused about not writing one himself.
Still, it was three concerts of well-known works all written a long, long, long time ago. Why not some of Hindemith’s German folk music or Janáček’s exploration of the ground Dvořák covered? Instead of playing some more adventurous music, the fireworks in all three concerts came from the two brilliant young soloists and an orchestra eager to get back to work.
On Saturday evening, we were introduced to cellist Joshua Roman, an energetic young musician with so many diverse projects going all at once that a perusal of his biography makes you want to take a nap. When he was only 22, he spent 2006 through 2008 as principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony. But sitting still is obviously not his thing. Since then, his life has been a whirlwind. He established the Seattle Town Hall Music Series, designed to be an outreach to new audiences. He also composed some outstanding pieces, has his own YouTube channel, does outreach in places like Uganda with his violinist siblings and finds time to play concerts around the word like this one.
He brought all of that explosive energy to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. With a strangely blasé Harth-Bedoya on the podium, we were grateful that Dvořák didn’t write a long introduction. Once Roman tore into the first entrance, we were mesmerized. With flawless technique and intonation to match his youthful exuberance, assisted by the huge sound his cello produced, this was a performance that will stick in memory. It was a rip-snortin’ reading but also a performance full of thoughtful nuance without any fussiness or ecstatic gazes heavenward.
We got the same on Sunday from a repeat appearance by Augustin Hadelich with Dvorák’s Violin Concerto. While this is not as attractive a piece as the Brahms concerto he played on Friday, it was better suited to his personality and the performance came alive. He played the Brahms but he lived the Dvořák.
The Dvořák concerto lacks examples of the composer’s melodic gift that Brahms so admired and it does overstay its welcome until the last movement picks things up considerably. Some other performances of this work have not impressed as much as Hadelich’s intelligent and sensitive reading. Although it appeared that Harth-Bedoya was not as familiar with this concerto as with the remainder of the program, he did a fine job and was with Hadelich every step of the way.
The difference between the two soloists was underlined by their choice of encores. Hadelich chose to repeat what he played on Friday night: Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 (come on—he wrote 24 of them). Roman, on the other hand, chose a bluegrass-inspired work, Julie-O, by the crossover cellist Mark Summer.
Hadelich: The caprice was coolly perfect, taken at a lightening speed and tossed off with his usual bow in the air release (even, a little comically, after soft passages).
Roman: Julio-O, on the other hand, was sizzling and scratchy. Extended pizzicato passages, with the bow on his lap, allowed for some percussion effects as he playfully slapped the cello around a little.
An aside: Like Roman, Summer (Julio-O’s composer) spent a few short years chaffing in a symphony orchestra seat (Winnipeg Symphony) but soon fled for the freedom of the open road. He is the cellist in the Turtle Island String Quartet, a Bay Area ensemble that specializes in is jazz and improvisation. Turtle Island, by the way, comes from Native American mythology and is the name for the North American Continent. There is a well-known book with the same name by Gary Snyder.
This brings us to the dichotomy of Harth-Bedoya’s differing performance in the two concerts. On Saturday evening, he gave competition-worthy performances of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture as well as three of his Hungarian Dances (Nos. 17, 20 and 21). He also gave equally polished performances of four of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. Conducting without a score, he indicated every nuance and entrance with accuracy and subtlety. Tempi were perfect and consistent with each other. These performances sparkled.
On Sunday, Brahms’ Tragic Overture was just as nicely done. However, Brahms’ first symphony was a different story. Harth-Bedoya appeared to lose energy and turned in the only pedestrian conducting performance this writer has ever seen him deliver. This was so odd that it was most probably a case of exhaustion from lots of rehearsals and three different concerts in a row.
Fortunately right from the beginning, which is usually overwrought, Harth-Bedoya set excellent tempi. In fact, there were places that wanted more room, but overall the symphony moved at the proper pace. With this critical aspect in place as grounding, the orchestra took over and added all the excitement required for a successful performance. It may have been cobbled together by the players, but Brahms’ first symphony shined through and thrilled the audience.
A postscript: In years past, Harth-Bedoya’s podium excesses have gotten in his way more than they helped, but all that stopped a year ago and a mature, but still exciting, conductor emerged. His lethargic performance only came alive for the final brass chorale. The rest of the symphony received a flabby indeterminate beat. He even conducted the hemiola (see Moment of Geek below) passages by moving the downbeat rather than allowing Brahms’ favorite syncopated rhythmic device to gray the bar lines. Brahms’ rhythms are all about sharp edges, even in the slowest passages, and we saw none of that in his conducting.
Moment of Geek: Hemiola is a ratio of 3:2. What this means is that the music is written in three beats, but by moving the accent it sounds like it is in two:
Probably the best-known example is from Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story in the song “America.” The lyric “I want to be in A-” is in three, while “-mer-i-ca” is in two.
Most of the time, Brahms doesn’t use them so close together nor does he ever use Bernstein’s double time signature. In Brahms, the music will run in three patterns for a while and then suddenly switch to a two pattern while staying in the same time signature.
Here is a good example of the way Brahms notates hemiola:
Here is another example of that from a Mozart piano sonata:
The hemiola starts with the pickup to the third measure above. Look at the left hand (lower score); it sounds like this (accent in bold) and tempo remains the same:
1 2 3 / 1 2 3 / 1 2 3 / 1 2 3
This effect only works if we are aware of the cross rhythm as opposed to thinking that the time signature changed from three to two. Brahms was perfectly capable of changing the time signature. What he liked was the syncopated feel of a grayed, rather than moved, bar line. If you play in like it is in two, that effect vanishes. This is what happened on Sunday afternoon.
» Thanks to Wikipedia and the Internet for the examples.