Fort Worth — It was a fascinating experience to see conductor Nicholas Carter deliver an intriguing concert with a diverse program in Bass Hall with the Fort Worth Symphony on Nov. 10. His program was about as wide-ranging you can get in a symphonic concert, only lacking—alas—a piece by a living composer. Young conductors owe it to their generation of composers to play their music. That aside, the program had much that pleased.
I last saw Mr. Carter in 2014 conducting a Dallas Symphony Remix concert. At the time, I commented that: “There is still the shiny new conductor sheen about him, which only time and podium hours can burnish, but he is a talent to be watched.” Now, a few years and many concerts later, he is certainly more burnished, self-assured and less eager to impress—all of which is to his credit.
The program opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ transcendentally gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This is the original model that was adopted, greatly simplified and diluted, to become what we now know as new age music. Written only for strings, the composer sets them up in antiphonal groups and uses the principal players as a string quartet. Waves of sound revolve around the stage producing one more beautiful chord than the other. The FWSO string section provided a beautifully rich sound with considerable depth. While all the principal players did a fine job, the viola solo by principal Laura Bruton deserves special mention as does that of associate concertmaster Swang Lin—who we rarely get to hear.
Carter’s tendency to occasionally swoop on the podium, rather than give more pointed beats patterns, was a mixed blessing. Vaughan Williams’ music rolled like ocean waves from the stage to the back of Bass Hall, but precision attacks were lacking. (More about this later).
The mood diametrically changed when the young firebrand pianist Behzod Abduraimov, born in 1990 in Uzbekistan, launched into a ruff ’n tumble and percussive performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This concerto adds a solo trumpet to the solo piano part, which was beautifully played by principal trumpet Kyle Sherman. Like the preceding Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich only uses the strings for the orchestral accompaniment.
Abduraimov first came to notice when he won the London International Piano competition at the age of 18 and has had major career ever since. He took an appropriately muscular approach to the concerto, which is filled with steely technical fireworks.
This is a remarkably demanding work for both the soloist and the conductor. Occasionally, the piano and orchestra even alternate being on and off the beat. Ensemble with the soloists is a constant challenge. Among other difficulties, the piano part requires the pianist to accurately make rapid wide leaps with chords up and down the keyboard as well as very rapid scale passages in both hands.
On Friday, both pianist and conductor admirably met all of these considerable technical challenges. What was missing was all the fun Shostakovich incorporated into the concerto. It is full of quotes from works as diverse as Beethoven's “Appassionata” Sonata to the Austrian folk song "Oh du lieber Augustin” and even quotes from the composer’s own works. While this performance was impressive, it was too serious.
The British composer Edward Elgar, wildly popular in his day, is only represented by a handful of works these days. We recently heard his magnificent Dream of Gerontius with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and his remarkable cello concerto gets frequent outings. But his masterpiece, fortunately still in the repertoire, is his Enigma Variations (officially known as Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36). Actually, the concept of humor in music that was not really established in the piano concerto does better in this piece. Each of the variations is a portrait of one of the composer’s inner circle of friends and Carter slightly exaggerated the physical characteristics expressed in the music.
It is a shame that this piece is never accompanied by projected supertitles, giving the name and personalities of the people Elgar describe in the variations. While this information is in the program, it is too dark and the type too small to follow during the concert. Taking off further in that direction, it would be even better to show a photograph of the people so perfectly described in Elgar’s clever score.
Carter and the FWSO delivered a fine performance. Each soloist had a shining moment and balance and intonation were excellent. There were too many fortissimo passages, leaving little room for the ending, but this is, unfortunately, more often the case than not.
In my review of a past performance of Carter’s, I mentioned his tendency to conduct in big swoops and to collapse his imposingly tall frame to communicate a pianissimo. These—let’s call them traits—are still there and do not help his performance. Alas, it appears that his swooping baton technique is here to stay as I his physical indication of a drop in dynamics. This is not to say that Carter cannot be precise with his baton, he frequently is very clear, especially when such clarity is required. And, his swoops give a big sweep to the dynamic swells in both the Vaughan Williams and the Elgar, but the lack of a definite point to that vague beat causes some, admittedly minor but critically important, ensemble problems. The players have to guess exactly where in the swoop the downbeat is located and, while they come remarkably close to a consensus, the attack is understandably fuzzy. While his musical instincts are laudable and his understanding of the score apparent, it is this occasional lack of clarity in the sound that mars his performances.
Still, I’ll look forward to seeing him as he grows with more podium time.