Fort Worth — Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is a work frequently recorded, but more seldom performed. Thus, it is not especially surprising that this tone poem, as familiar as it may be to even a casual listener, was performed for the first time by the Fort Worth Symphony this weekend.
For a performance of this piece, an orchestra needs far more than the usual complement of brass, especially—eight horns, five trumpets, three trombones, and two tubas—plus large string sections to balance it all. Hiring that many extra musicians can be an expensive proposition, and the music itself is dauntingly difficult. Brass and woodwind parts are exhausting, strings have difficult part writing, and percussionists must do a good bit of dashing about from one instrument to another. Despite these pragmatic and musical difficulties, though, performing this piece may be one of the most exciting orchestral experiences possible. The musicians of the FWSO brought both enthusiasm and expertise to Friday’s performance.
Was it a perfect performance? Nope. Was it thrilling nonetheless? Absolutely. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya seemed in his element with this tricky, intricate piece. The strings sounded fabulous, winds were on point, and brass was mostly excellent. Some of the brass were shaky on a few entrances, but that’s a minor quibble given the level of complexity and the length—about 50 minutes—of this piece. There were too many excellent individual performances to list them all, but Concertmaster Michael Shih’s extensive solo part that represents Strauss’ wife Pauline was appropriately gorgeous—and capricious. Principal Flute Jake Fridkis was also a standout on Friday, with a full, rich sound and a variety of tonal colors. Principal Trumpet Kyle Sherman’s golden sound impressed, as well.
Ein Heldenleben, “A Hero’s Life,” is almost certainly autobiographical, with Strauss himself playing the part of the hero. The piece’s six sections, played attaca (with no breaks), include “The Hero,” “The Hero’s Adversaries,” in which woodwinds and low brass represent Strauss’ critics, “The Hero’s Companion,” in which the solo violin part is most prominent, to the point that it is almost a concerto in miniature, “The Hero’s Deeds of War,” which highlights percussion and the solo trumpet, “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” which quotes at least eight other of Strauss’ own compositions, some quite famous—Don Juan—and some relatively obscure. Finally, the piece comes to a quiet ending with “The Hero’s Retreat from the World.”
On the first half of the program, the orchestra performed six selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, which was originally written as incidental music to Ibsen’s play. This music was later fashioned into a pair of orchestral suites that, I would venture to guess, are now performed more frequently than Ibsen’s play about a Norwegian peasant who leaves his home and his beloved in search of adventures. The FWSO performed the best known of the incidental music, the liltingly lovely “Morning Mood,” the seductive “Anitra’s Dance,” and the thrillingly noisy “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” as well as three less-famous selections. While these were all well-played, the true highlight of the first half was Principal Viola Laura Bruton offstage and Concertmaster Michael Shih in the aisle playing improvisatory Scandinavian-style fiddle music. It was a fun, surprising, and creative opener to a delightful evening—both Bruton and Shih are superb musicians in any genre, it turns out.e Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has proven that it can take on the most ambitious pieces in the orchestral repertoire, and play them well. This orchestra is a tremendous gift to its city; it is wonderful to hear the orchestra sounding this excellent and see it drawing robust audiences.