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Review: Tchaikovsky Extravaganza | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

A Little Off

Guest violinist James Ehnes and the Fort Worth Symphony weren't at their best in the season opener.

published Saturday, September 15, 2018

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes


Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony has been an excellent orchestra of late, emerging from their strike of two years ago like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. Their Bernstein festival a few weeks ago drew praise from all quarters, and they have been, the great majority of the time, a joy to listen to.

But even such good orchestras sometimes have an off night, and Friday in some respects was that night.

The program, conducted by Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was all Tchaikovsky, beginning with the delicious Capriccio Italien. This fun romp includes allusions to Italian military music, folk tunes, and the tarantella dance. It’s challenging for orchestras because of the many tempo changes—both abrupt transitions and accelerandos and ritardandos. It requires close attention from everyone, and for the most part, the orchestra delivered, though it took a few minutes for them to settle. A couple of broken notes in the brass and a tambourine that was a bit too enthusiastic were minor problems.

James Ehnes’ rendition of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was another beast entirely. This is a glorious concerto, with one brilliant melodic idea after another, and it is an expected part of every violin soloist’s repertoire.

Here’s the thing: concertos such as the Tchaikovsky have been performed so many times by so many excellent musicians that the best of them must strive to put their own stamps on their performances. James Ehnes is a technical phenom. He can make the violin do anything he wants it to. But some of his phrasing choices were quirky to the point of distraction, and his style in places could have had more edge and less legato. On the plus side, we can’t help but truly HEAR his performance, without it being layered over myriad other performances and recordings that we have in our memories. Further, both the second movement Canzonetta and third movement (marked Allegro vivacissimo) were unusually fast. The slow second movement sounded a bit rushed, but the third movement was almost frantic, and the orchestra seemed to be fighting to keep up. To be clear: James Ehnes is a brilliant violinist, and I have no technical quibbles about his performance. I just didn’t care for some of his musical decisions.

Ehnes’ encore, on the other hand, was a golden, pure rendition of the third movement of Bach’s second sonata for violin solo. This movement, dominantly in double stops, asks the performer to weave two simultaneous lines, with the lower line pulsing below the melodic top one. Ehnes’ phrasing flowed seamlessly from start to finish. This, I could have listened to forever.

The final work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.” There were some shaky technical moments here—especially, there were pitch problems in the brass and winds, particularly in the first movement. Tempo lagged in the second movement, making the effect a bit heavy in a movement marked “Allegro con grazia” (“with grace”). Overall, however, Tchaikovsky’s work, that he wished to call the “Passionate” symphony (“Pathétique” is a mistranslation of the Russian word he chose), requires great musicianship, and by the poignant fourth movement the orchestra delivered. The strings’ ensemble was tight and controlled, and this, the last of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and the only one that ends in a minor key, broke our hearts in just the way it is meant to.

This is an orchestra of which I have come to expect much. And there were glorious moments in Friday’s concert. (Perhaps most important, too, the audience was loudly appreciative.) There were simply enough little issues Friday that for me, at least, they began to add up. Thanks For Reading

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A Little Off
Guest violinist James Ehnes and the Fort Worth Symphony weren't at their best in the season opener.
by J. Robin Coffelt

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