Fort Worth — Guest conductors are a gamble. Will they make the orchestra sound better than usual? Or worse? On Friday, under the baton of guest conductor Andrew Gourlay, the Fort Worth Symphony sounded—mostly—glorious.
The first half of the program began rather abruptly, with the Brahms Violin Concerto in D and soloist was 24-year-old William Hagen. He began his performing career, which has included previous FWSO appearances, as a teen, but a scruffy beard seems to signal that he’s shed his child prodigy trappings. The first movement of the Brahms, marked Allegro non troppo, got off to an uncertain start—both the orchestra and Hagen seemed unsure of what musical idea, exactly, they were trying to convey.
In a piece performed this frequently, a sense of musical purpose is essential to keep even a very good performance from being the same old thing. But both orchestra and soloist hit their stride in the second movement—buoyed by a gorgeous oboe solo from Jennifer Corning Lucio, Hagen floated through the middle movement, marked Adagio, with absolute surety of phrasing, a stunning tone in his upper register, and a clear sense of purpose. The third movement, Allegro giocoso, just added to the effect. Splendid technical control and intonation in runs and double stops and just enough theatricality—a little knee bend to emphasize a phrase, for instance—made me long for an encore that didn’t come. Hagen is a fine violinist with the potential for an exceptional career.
The second half began more somberly than the first, with Rachmaninoff’s Dies Irae-punctuated “The Isle of the Dead.” This large scale orchestral work, with its nearly Impressionistic surges and atmospheric effects, is an interesting counterpoint to Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from The Firebird. In both, the orchestra’s playing was some of the best I’ve ever heard from this group. It wasn’t perfect: strings were occasionally untidy, and there were some momentary ensemble problems. But those were easily overlooked: the overall effect was a delight. Gourlay’s left-hand cues were sometimes a bit flappy, but his downbeat was clear and precise—a blessing in a conductor, but a blessing not always received. That precision contributed, I suspect, to the high quality of Friday’s performance.
In The Firebird, both the lyricism of the “Berceuse” and “Finale” and the drama and intensity of the “Infernal Dance” were spot on—the beginning of the Infernal Dance made people startle, as it should, though I was disappointed that no one actually screamed, as in this must-see (just trust me) video. Some individual performances were outstanding: Seth McConnell, tympani, Molly Norcross, horn, and especially Kevin Hall, bassoon, whose solo in the “Berceuse” was breathtakingly lovely.
There were some empty seats in Bass Hall Friday night, perhaps due to the cold and rainy weather. But those who stayed home missed out—this is an orchestra on the rise.