Composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir
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Review: Grieg's Piano Concerto | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

Go North

The Fort Worth Symphony went Nordic with works by Sibelius, Grieg, and Icelandic composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir.

published Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Photo: Tara McMullen
Pianist Jon Kimura Parker


Fort Worth — Although it has been unseasonably warm in North Texas, the Fort Worth Symphony took us to the bleak winter that can only be found in the Nordic landscape. Miguel Harth-Bedoya presented a program this weekend that was anchored by Jean Sibelius’ ever-popular Symphony No. 2, written in 1901. The concert opened at the opposite end of the time frame with a new piece, Clockworking, written by the Icelandic composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, filled out the program with the Canadian pianist, Jon Kimura Parker, doing the honors.

Harth-Bedoya is Peruvian, which is not even close to the frigid splendor of the Nordic environs. In fact, Peru has almost any climate you could want, with 28 of the world’s 32 climates present at one time or location or another within its borders. However, he is also the chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, so he has some significant experience with that northern climes and barren landscapes. This understanding was most apparent in his reading of the Sibelius symphony.

Right from the opening of Sibelius’ masterpiece, Harth-Bedoya established the composer’s unique style of cool romantic bleakness. While the symphony has some big moments that are glorious indeed, much of it is scantily scored — vacant, as it were. Frequently, there are only two independent lines that run concurrently, with little comment from the rest of the orchestra. On Saturday, the excellent intonation and close ensemble the orchestra displayed allowed the composer’s effect to stand out in stark reality. An excellently played duet for two bassoons, singing a melancholy melody an octave apart, epitomized this stark approach.

Further, Harth-Bedoya kept the tempo moving, resisting the temptation to over-romanticize. The best example of this restraint was the beautiful solo given to the oboe in the trio of the scherzo. It is unique in music because most of it is made up of a single repeated note with a turn at the end. Frequently, the oboist plays the repeated notes with a crescendo of dynamics and richness of tone, sauced with lots of rubato. Not so here. It was played relatively strictly without much romantic gravy. It was different to hear, and felt bereft of its beauty, but it fit into Harth-Bedoya’s more wintry approach. He finally let the symphony loose at the end when he arrived at the broad and stunningly beautiful theme, bringing the performance to a satisfying conclusion.

All of this was fine and made for a performance that gave us a different impression of this oft-performed symphony. However, the work is made up of discrete elements that are strung together like a strand of pearls and Harth-Bedoya did little to help cover the seams. In fact, frequently he paused at the joints before proceeding. This made the symphony sound unorganized and repetitive. The symphony still stood gloriously, but it felt fractured.

Photo: Courtesy
Composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir

Sigfúsdóttir’s eight-minute work that opened the program certainly lived up to its name, Clockworking. It was originally written for a string quartet, and this marked its orchestral premiere. It is minimalistic in nature and it moved through its various harmonies and repeated patterns to a tick-tock created by two marimbas. The composer was present and made some langweilig comments, before we heard it, that took longer than the piece itself. She told us that she wanted the clock sounds to run from beginning to end and they certainly did.

Minimalism is perfect for such a concept.  

It reminded me of the crocodile, who ingested a ticking clock and chased Captain Hook throughout J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan. This serves all of us as a reminder that time may be always present, but it cannot be outrun. Others, I am certain, had different associations, which is one of the things that music does better than any other art form.

For some reason, the Grieg piano concerto has fallen out of favor with concert artists these days. In the past, it was a favorite of the likes of Van Cliburn, Ivan Davis, Arthur Rubinstein and the now-forgotten Stephen Kovacevich. Not to mention that audiences love to hear it, and everyone is familiar with the opening chords that the soloist plays as introduction. Perhaps it is thought to be a student piece, or perhaps it is simply that it doesn’t offer the same opportunity to display astounding technical fireworks that other concerti allow the pianist. This performance was a relatively rare, but appreciated, modern-day appearance.

In the hands of Parker, the concerto tapped the listeners on the shoulder and reminded why we have always loved to hear it. Besides, contrary to opinion, there are plenty of technical displays, especially in the candenzi, and Parker made the most of them.

Parker’s approach was occasionally jolly and sometimes serious but always muscular in realization. He contrasted those disparate moments with equal amounts of very sensitive playing. While it is true that ritards were overly indulged, some melodies may have been overly schmaltzed, some big moments overly played and some tempi were overly exaggerated, this was a new take on an overly familiar piece. As such, is sounded fresh and new from beginning to end. The audience’s rapturous reaction should speak well for hearing the Grieg concerto more often. Thanks For Reading

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Go North
The Fort Worth Symphony went Nordic with works by Sibelius, Grieg, and Icelandic composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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