Denton — The Fort Worth Symphony is performing a few extra programs this year, in order to vet potential candidates for Music Director, to replace the outgoing Miguel Harth-Bedoya. However, Bass Hall is a busy place, so the orchestra has been obligated to play some of those concerts at an alternate venue. The lucky recipient of the overflow is Denton — the FWSO is performing three concerts, ambitious programs all, at the Murchison Performing Arts Center at the University of North Texas this season.
The first of these was Sunday evening. Led by Norwegian conductor Rune Bergmann, the program featured two big works, the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, with FWSO Concertmaster Michael Shih as soloist, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, the “Eroica.”
But the concert opened, as is so often the case with orchestral programs these days, with a brief contemporary piece, Flint Juventino Beppe’s “Heart,” scored for string orchestra and tubular bells. Even before that first programmed piece, though, Bergmann echoed the style of Harth-Bedoya by beginning with the national anthem, which Bergmann said he has never conducted before. (Little wonder: his current Music Director post is with the Calgary Philharmonic, and he is also Artistic Director for a Polish orchestra.)
Also echoing Harth-Bedoya’s style — Bergmann was chatty. Harth-Bedoya’s tendency to provide a bit too much of a music history lesson is something I had hoped we could move away from with the new Music Director. Still, though, his remarks before Beppe’s piece were elucidating. According to Bergmann, Beppe has autism, and is a self-taught composer. “Heart” is an attractive, lyrical, simple but not minimalistic piece that on first hearing is reminiscent of soothing ambient music rather than concert-hall fare. It was a valuable choice for a Music Director candidate, though: a new piece, from his home country, that audiences would not otherwise have been exposed to.
The other pieces on the program were real warhorses, which allowed plenty of opportunity to evaluate Bergmann as a conductor. In the Brahms, he seemed to partner effectively with soloist Michael Shih, making space for Shih’s own interpretation of the concerto. As for Shih’s playing, I have long been a champion of his, especially his silky tone. The works of the Romantic period are a great fit for his strengths. Sunday night, he generally played well, though he dropped some notes, yes, and struggled in a couple of runs in Joseph Joachim’s dauntingly difficult cadenza. While Joachim’s are the originals — Brahms wrote the concerto for him—there are at least fifteen others, all of which the violinist Ruggiero Ricci has recorded. Since the purpose of a cadenza is to wow the audience with the musician’s virtuosity, I wonder whether another cadenza might better have served that purpose. Bergmann mostly effected good balance, although orchestral tuttis in the third movement were occasionally too loud. But overall, the performance was a joy to listen to, especially the lyrical second movement with its gorgeous opening oboe solo, skillfully played by Principal Oboe Jennifer Corning Lucio. And it was a pleasure to hear Shih featured by the orchestra.
Beethoven’s third symphony was the real test of Bergmann’s connection with the orchestra, and he generally delivered. Ensemble in strings was some of the best I’ve heard from this orchestra. The second movement, albeit a funeral march, still struck me as unusually slow. But Bergmann built intensity with skill, keeping the audience’s attention even at the poky tempo. Occasional hesitancy in entrances seemed to result from Bergmann giving a soft downbeat. The third movement Scherzo, the best-known part of this symphony, included well-chosen phrasing and dynamics to create a real sense of excitement. Too, the orchestra executed the fugal statement in the fourth movement particularly well, with fine balance from section to section. Bergmann conducted without a podium (he is quite tall), a score, or a stick, which gave him freedom of movement but perhaps, in the case of the baton, somewhat less precision.
It’s too soon to tell whether Rune Bergmann is a likely candidate as the FWSO’s new Music Director. But the orchestra seemed to like him, and they generally played well. While the orchestra probably didn’t much appreciate the commute to Denton, this Dentonite felt pure delight in the 10-minute commute each way. I’m looking forward to two more of these concerts, on January 17 and March 20, and hope locals will take advantage of this great opportunity.