Fort Worth — The trend of conductors providing music history lessons before concerts seems to be escalating—Fort Worth Symphony guest conductor Carlos Kalmar spent nearly 10 minutes before Friday’s FWSO concert explaining each piece. Judging from the reactions of the people seated near me, this exegesis was not entirely unwelcome—Kalmar’s remarks were, indeed, on point. On the other hand, this concert clocked in at 10 minutes over the two-hour mark, making for a long evening for contemporary concertgoers. (Beethoven himself sometimes programmed concerts that must have been four hours or more long, but that was before musician’s unions and the distractions of modern life.)
Most of Friday’s concert was an enjoyable listen, though, whatever the length of the program.
American pianist Simone Dinnerstein was the star of the show, to be sure. To perform a concerto such as Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, the “Emperor,” surely one of the most-performed piano concerti of all, the musician has to work to make her playing distinctive without being vulgar. Dinnerstein found a solid balance. Although her second movement tempo was a bit slow, otherwise her playing was sensitive, nuanced, and gave the impression throughout that she was playing with the orchestra, not just in front of it. The Fort Worth Symphony, however, did not support her as effectively as they might have done. Balance was often problematic, with moments where the brass were overwhelmingly loud or the winds were nearly inaudibly soft, or the entire orchestra was simply too heavy. Chalk this up to a guest conductor not yet accustomed to the acoustics of Bass Hall. On the other hand, there’s a charming bit in the third movement Rondo in which the piano begins a melodic phrase and the violins pick it up, then it’s repeated by the entire orchestra, then, playfully, by the bassoon before the piano enters again— and that moment was absolutely wonderful.
The evening began with Benjamin Britten’s delicious but challenging “Four Sea Interludes” from his opera Peter Grimes. These interludes, titled “Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm,” make considerable technical demands of the orchestra. The Fort Worth Symphony generally availed itself well. Intonation in the very high violin parts, for instance, was solid. Ensemble was not as tight as usual with this orchestra—perhaps they did not quite trust Kalmar’s baton. Entrances in the low brass were sometimes a bit ragged, and strings, winds, and mallet percussion weren’t always exactly together. Effective dynamic contrasts provided appropriate drama in the “Storm” movement, which ended with a quite literal bang.
The second half of the program was a collection of all of Ravel’s waltzes for orchestra: the Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse, performed without a break in between. The orchestra evinced some fine, crisp playing in the first of the Valses nobles, and while the end of La Valse was perhaps exaggeratedly loud, it served as a dramatic close to an interesting program.
There were lots of empty seats Friday night—perhaps on this occasion piano fans were mostly in Dallas listening to Emanuel Ax play with Dallas Symphony Orchestra, but low attendance at FWSO concerts is a source of concern.