Fort Worth — A quality of rambunctiousness dominated Friday’s concert of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, as energetic guest conductor Teddy Abrams, the 31-year-old music director of the Louisville Orchestra, took the stage with three lively 20th-century works at Bass Performance Hall.
The Agnegram of Michael Tilson Thomas (more well-known as a conductor than composer) raised the curtain (metaphorically, of course). Composed in 1998 as a tribute to the very wealthy and generous San Francisco Symphony patron Agnes Albert (hence the pun of the title), this 8-minute bonbon is built around a series of notes corresponding to letters in Albert’s name. Stylistically, Agnegram draws on Bernstein, Sousa, Leroy Anderson, and Ives, and includes a quotation from the old Russian Imperial Anthem “God Save the Czar,” familiar to audiences around the world from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Not at all likely to endure in the repertoire (except perhaps as a historical oddity), Agnegram did get the show off to a boisterous start, and gave a taste of Abrams’ breezy stage presence and aggressive baton technique.
Conducting Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G of 1931 while simultaneously performing the solo part was not a good idea; although conducting from the keyboard is a time-honored tradition, particularly appropriate in baroque repertoire, the complexities of both the piano and orchestra parts in this work demand fulltime attention from a soloist and a conductor. Admittedly, much of the work’s decadent Interbellum charm remained intact, but the sense of overall momentum was missing as Abrams busily shuffled back and forth from navigating a virtuosic piano part to holding the symphonic role together—often with a quick flick of a free hand here or an emphatic nod of the head there. The serene middle movement, in which both hands of the pianist are on the keyboard all the time, particularly suffered, with the gorgeously expressive instrumental solos in the orchestra left to fend for themselves without conductorial leadership. Abrams demonstrated a worthy command of the technical intricacies of the piano part, but those sparkling scales and numerous glissandos ultimately degenerated into a series of technical exercises in the mad rush to hold the work together.
Prokofiev’s hefty Symphony No. 5, written in the closing days of World War II, as allied victory loomed, opens reflectively but travels quickly to soaring high spirits. Abrams had no issue with calling on the full volume of the orchestra early on in this 45-minute symphonic adventure; as in the Ravel, one had more of a sense of episodes than of a unified vision on the part of the conductor. Prokofiev here evokes the same wide-ranging melodicism and sometimes dark orchestral colors of his ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. The romantic lyricism and scoring of the Adagio third movement provided the finest moment in a performance that, while not living up to the score’s full potential as a profound masterpiece, delivered generous doses of excitement, and drew an enthusiastic ovation.