Fort Worth — Gala evenings offer arts organizations a concentrated opportunity to raise desperately needed funds. They are a combination of a musical and social affair, so they offer a dress-up event as well. On Saturday night, the Bass Performance Hall lobby was filled with women in a kaleidoscope of elegant gowns while the men were dressed in regulation black tuxedos.
The musical part of the gala turned a spotlight on the Fort Worth Symphony and Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. As a soloist, they were joined by one of a handful of classical music superstars who can pack a house: violinist Joshua Bell. (And he did.)
There is always a separate part of the evening, designed to raise more funds, is an expensive-ticketed fancy dinner and auction after the concert. Frequently, these cost more than they raise but not so with the Fort Worth Symphony’s shindig Saturday night. It was announced during the glittering dinner, at Fort Worth’s historic Worthington Hotel, that a generous (very generous) donor underwrote the entire evening. (Not sure if they want to be identified so I am erring on the side of caution. But consider this mention as a token of gratitude.)
By a confluence of events, the finances of the FWSO are in the news these days. This is the result of a very public and protracted contract negotiation process between management and the players. It situation is on hold as of now. (Both sides took a page from our deadlocked congress and settled for a stopgap can-kicking measure that will at least keep the doors open and the musicians paid their current wages through the end of July—but settled nothing really.)
We don’t have a final tally on the funds raised in the social part of the evening, but the music part of the event was a major success. The orchestra sounded magnificent, like those on single digit list of top-level symphonies. They certainly have some top-level players in the principal chairs and significant depth in the sections.
One of the remarkable aspects of regularly attending the FWSO concerts over the past few years is the rare opportunity to observe Harth-Bedoya’s growth as a conductor as he morphed from “OK” to “good” and, in the last couple of years, to “great.” Many conductors grow musically and Harth-Bedoya has done that, but he also transformed and refined his podium and baton technique. This is a difficult process that most conductors do not undertake (or even realize that it would improve their performances).
The spectacular results of these duo improvements, orchestra and maestro, were on full display Saturday as they delivered a world-class performance of a very challenging program.
Verdi’s overture to his opera, La forza del destino, is a concert hall standard. It is packed with some of Verdi’s trademark melodies combined with lots of fireworks. What’s not to like? A problem with some performances is caused by the fact that it is not a through-composed piece. This is a problem with any potpourri overture because that are made up of selections from the opera, written for impact where they occur in the show. When shoved together like squabbling neighbors, with are no transitions between them.
Conductors cannot take the selections the same way in the overture as you would in their original position. Harth-Bedoya completely got this and melded all the disparate elements into a unified piece without any noticeable seams.
The same thing can be said, perhaps even more so, for the hobbled-together suite from Strauss’ sublimely beautiful opera Der Rosenkavalier. The clunky ending, a ham-handed attempt at a flashy finish, never works. But Harth-Bedoya carefully shaped all the other excerpts, reminiscent of their original purpose, but fitting together in a suite. (Someone needs to put together another suite.)
Violinist Joshua Bell is one of the few superstars who never disappoints and he was stellar on this occasion. Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 26, is one of the most standard of standard concerti in the repertoire, which talented teenage violinists can conquer in an acceptable manner. But right from the first cadenza-like opening phrase, which he played in an artfully different manner when immediately repeated, Bell’s rendition of the Bruch concerto reminded us that it can be mesmerizing.
There is a lot of buzz about the welcome resurrection of romanticism in the works of contemporary composers, refreshed by its rough passage through the 20th century. However, there is not much buzz about a similar revolution in artist’s performances these days. We are seeing a similar move towards more personal interpretations, with a loosening of the dictatorship of the metronome for expressive purposes.
This concert offered a perfect example of that phenomenon. In the two orchestral pieces, Harth-Bedoya’s generous use of rubato brought the score to life: such as leaning on the non-harmonic tone resolutions and giving the phrases room to breathe—even sigh on occasion.
Bell’s remarkably clean performance demonstrated how a revival of 19th century sensibilities, combined with 20th century precision, is creating a 21st century voice out of the best of both worlds. A good example is Bell’s use of portamenti (slides between notes). In the 19th century they sloped all over the place and, typical of history’s pendulum swings, were banished as purple in the 20th. For one example, in his performance of the Bruch, a scattering use of a sleeker portamento warmed the entire concerto.
Bell underlined this most welcome development by his encore, the “Meditation” from Massenet’s hyper-romantic opera Thaïs. His performance was hyper-romantic for sure, but far from in a sentimental 19th century way.
It was quite a “thank you” present given to those who turned out in support of this excellent orchestra.