Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya are currently in Washington, D.C. performing at the SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras at Kennedy Center. Last weekend in Bass Performance Hall, they offered local audiences a preview of their Kennedy Center program. It is a celebration of contemporary music, featuring two young composers, Anna Clyne and Jimmy López, as well as music of that bastion of American music Leonard Bernstein.
Anna Clyne, a British-born composer now living in the U.S., offered up RIFT for orchestra, an three movement piece designed to highlight the “chaos and destruction” “so prevalent in the world today.” The musicians of the FWSO were joined onstage by six dancers from Texas Ballet Theater performing choreography by Kitty McNamee. The three-movement piece is minimalistic, but not extremely so. That said, at least on first hearing, and with the distraction of dancers, RIFT was underwhelming, and gave the impression of something that had been done before, and better.
But kudos to the FWSO for programming women composers at all this season, unlike their counterparts in Dallas. While women comprise 47 percent of all musicians in American symphony orchestras, they are woefully underrepresented as conductors and composers. In the 2016-2017 season, works by women comprised only 1.3 percent of the total works performed by American orchestras. You might well argue that that’s because until the past few decades, there were simply few women composers working. Okay, let’s accept that as (partially) true. Only 10.3 percent of music by LIVING composers performed by American orchestras was written by women.
The glass ceiling is still thick and heavy, if you’re a composer. So although my first impression of Anna Clyne’s music was not a wildly enthusiastic one, I am wildly enthusiastic about the programming choice.
The other young composer on the weekend’s program was the Peruvian Jimmy López, whose Bel Canto: A Symphonic Canvas is a suite derived from his opera Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett’s novel. His style is wildly different from Clyne’s—if her mode is minimalism, his is a neo-romantic maximalism, highly melodic and lush. While his brilliant, sometimes mariachi-like trumpet and other brass writing is a boon for those players, offering an opportunity for especially fine work by principal trumpet Kyle Sherman, he often doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the rest of the orchestra. A frighteningly high English Horn solo plus loads of mere texture in the strings seems to show uncertainty about how to write effectively for those instruments. Still, López’s music is, as “new music” goes, decidedly crowd-pleasing.
The highlight of the program was what, relatively speaking, was the old standby: Bernstein’s five-movement Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium” for solo violin, strings, and percussion. The violin soloist was the extraordinary Augustin Hadelich. North Texas music lovers have been so fortunate to have been able to hear Hadelich on multiple occasions over the past couple of years. He has appeared with the Dallas Symphony, in recital, and is also an Artistic Partner of the FWSO. He is absolutely one of my favorite young violinists. He does everything well: technically and musically he is nearly flawless, even on a piece as demanding as the Bernstein. His performance of the Bernstein brought out the best in the FWSO—the strings and percussion sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, clean, crisp and responsive.
An orchestral program entirely consisting of 20th and 21st century music is a rarity in the Metroplex these days. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the contemporary music on the program, I relish a chance to hear it, and I hope listeners at the SHIFT Festival do, as well.