Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony hosted a notable couple this weekend—composer Cindy McTee, former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, and her husband, Detroit Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin.
The first half of the program was entirely American music, featuring Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town,” Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, and McTee’s own Double Play. Slatkin encouraged mostly very good playing from the FWSO, including especially full-toned trumpets and excellent clarinets, trombones, and saxophone in the Bernstein. The strings, too, were consistently clean, with uniform ensemble.
Slatkin’s stage presence was charming; he referred to wife McTee as his “composer-in-residence,” and introduced her to the appreciative audience. It’s an irony that Fort Worth, with its reputation for Old West nostalgia, is so receptive to contemporary music. But such is the case; the Fort Worth Symphony’s programming is consistently more daring than that of its cousin 40 miles to the east, with considerably more focused on music by living composers.
McTee’s Double Play, with its two movements “The Unquestioned Answer” and “Tempus Fugit” was a percussionist’s playground. It begins with a rainstick solo, adds suspended cymbals, and only after a few bars of this percussion-fest do strings enter as an atmospheric background to more percussion, including vibraphone and chimes. A percussionist friend frequently posts photos to Facebook of the array of equipment he has assembled onstage for a rehearsal or performance, with the tagline “Waiting to Play.” Indeed, percussionists often do spend more time waiting than playing. But not in McTee’s piece. It includes 22 pieces of percussion equipment (including timpani), and the percussion section of the Fort Worth Symphony was busy for nearly every bar. Notable was a recurring motive for two wood blocks, instruments usually relegated to background but here foregrounded in a complex rhythmic interplay.
After a first half that placed considerable demands on the audience as well as the musicians, the post-intermission dessert was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor. Slatkin, conducting without a score, brought out the best in the musicians, carefully shaping each phrase of this Romantic icon. His was not a rote performance—he personalized each measure, with a bit more spacing between notes here, a bit more accelerando there. Principal Horn Molly Norcross glowed in the extended solo at the beginning of the second movement. Lush tone and impeccable phrasing resulted in a luxurious effect.
Slatkin coaxed precise performances from the strings, with generally tight ensemble and loving attention to detail. It was especially delightful to see Principal Viola Laura Bruton back on stage again leading her section after her recent medical leave.
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra seems to sound better each time I am privileged to hear them. It bears repeating: they deserve our support.