Fort Worth — Everyone concerned with Friday evening’s Fort Worth Symphony concert approached it with a heavy heart and some trepidation. We woke up that morning to the unbelievably horrific news that pianist and the 2013 Cliburn gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko discovered the bodies of his murdered children, with his estranged wife severely wounded. He was scheduled to appear in that very concert playing a Prokofiev concerto, which obviously would not happen.
Even though a local favorite, the internationally praised pianist Alessio Bax, would fill in with a hometown favorite concerto, Tchaikovsky’s No. 1, there was a somber feeling in Bass Hall as the audience gathered. That continued as Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya took the stage. He announced that would not play the announced first selection, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1—wildly inappropriate under the circumstances. Instead, he led a subdued and inspirational performance of the Nimrod movement for Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which is frequently used as a memorial tribute. He asked that we hold our applause at the end and sacred space was created as Elgar’s noble music faded into silence.
Tchaikovsky’s concerto, in spite of its frequent programming, is not an easy piece to put together. Conductors and pianists alike know all the places where it can easily fall apart, but that doesn’t make them easier to navigate. Bax arrived in time for a brief meeting with Harth-Bedoya but not for a run-through with the orchestra. The task was made somewhat easier in that the orchestra has played the concerto regularly as part of the final rounds in the Cliburn competition and they instinctively knew where they had to pay close attention. Everyone had their game face on when they started.
The result, with all concerned on hyper drive, was an incendiary and inspired throw-caution-to-the-winds performance. Bax is a master technician who always puts his considerable abilities to work in the service of the music, as opposed to impressing the audience. Harth-Bedoya is excellent as a concerto partner. Both knew that they could handle any possible disaster at the first hint, so they both let loose and played the music for all it is worth. Was it perfect? Thankfully not, for a change. It was a wild ride that created a memorable performance, the likes of which we may never hear again.
Brahms’ third symphony occupied the second half of the concert but nothing, no matter how well performed, could possibly come up to the magic that happened with the Tchaikovsky. The loud moments were overblown from the third note on and there was a long way to go. Adding to the problems, the wildly gesticulating Harth-Bedoya returned—not often, but in some key places (like that third note).
For the last three years, he presented as a mature master conductor with a secure, precise and expressive baton technique. Perhaps this was due to the uniqueness of the situation, or the muscle memory of a work learned long ago. While it was a very exciting, albeit non-Brahmsian, performance. The few throwbacks to the Harth-Bedoya of yesteryear, which may never appear again, only served to underline his remarkable transformation to a major conductor worthy to occupy any podium in the world.