Fort Worth — Since Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya is retiring after 20 years at the helm, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has been sporting a parade of possible contenders for his replacement. This weekend, it was Israeli conductor Yaniv Dinur's turn at bat. He has quite a list of winnings on the international competition circuit, including the 2019 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award. He also holds a doctorate in conducting from the University of Michigan. Currently, he is the resident conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. In a recent tour de force, he appeared with the Milwaukee Symphony as both piano soloist and conductor in a Mozart concerto.
The program opened with a rarity, D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning) by Lili Boulanger. If that name sounds half familiar it is because she was the sister of Nadia Boulanger, the 20th century’s go-to composition teacher. Lili was quite celebrated during her short lifetime, but her early death and the disadvantages of her gender in a male-dominated field have prevented her from the historical recognition she deserved. This was a lovely post-Debussyian piece of evocative music and the performance was Dinur’s best work of the afternoon.
The requisite concerto on the program was not exactly a concerto, but was Tchaikovsky’s delightful Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33. Allan Steele, the principal cellist of the FWSO, did the honors. The composer wrote this classical-era tribute to Mozart, perhaps as reparative therapy, right after he penned the hellish storms of his tone poem Francesca da Rimini. (We recently heard an adrenaline-drenched performance of this wild work with the Dallas Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Jader Bignamini.)
Tchaikovsky didn’t give us a Rococo theme that he dug up in some extensive research. Instead, it is one that he wrote in a successful imitation of that style and was designed to be well-suited to the variation process, a form that Tchaikovsky rarely used. However, this is one of the works in musical history that was significantly “improved” by the meddling of a well-meaning someone else. In this case, it was Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a German cellist and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory. As with many other works that composers wrote for instruments other than their own, Tchaikovsky relied on him for advice on the capabilities of the instrument. His “advice” was copious and resulted in a very different piece than what Tchaikovsky intended, such as rewriting extended passages, reordering the variations themselves, and even dropping one of the eight variations. While the original un-Fitzenhagen version was resurrected in 1941, the fact that this performance only featured seven of the original eight variations speaks to which version was performed on Sunday.
All that musicological doublespeak aside, Steele’s performance definitely took the composer’s classical intentions to heart as he presented a reserved and thoughtful performance. While the piece presents some formidable technical challenges, its intent is more towards a display of musicianship and elegant playing, and Steele certainly achieved this result. He produced a gorgeous tone, deep and resonant, that was as much a credit to his masterful use of the bow as to his noticeably excellent instrument. Technically, he was equally impressive as he delivered a remarkably low-key, clean and accurate reading. Adding to the excellence of the performance, Dinur and the orchestra were with him all the way.
The only problem with his performance was Steele’s mushy intonation, which was not out of tune per se, but wasn’t always precisely in tune either. The pitch is a constantly changing target on instruments other than those with fixed pitch, such as the piano. It has to be constantly adjusted depending on the function of the note within the chord. For example, the major third of a major chord wants to be higher than if the same note was the minor third of a minor chord. Other than a few more noticeable problems with the treacherous octave passage, it was this very slight difference that took some of the shine off of his otherwise excellent performance.
The second half of the program left all of the musical elegance and subtlety behind as orchestra and conductor delivered an exciting performance of Berlioz’s blazing and opium-addled Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un artiste ... en cinq parties (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts), Op. 14. It is written for a huge orchestra and the augmented FWSO more than filled the stage. The only noticeable omissions were a few later instrumentation additions the composer made to the score and, more seriously, substituting some totally inadequate tubular chimes for the required offstage bells.
It was obvious, maybe too obvious, that this is probably one of Dinur’s prize-winning selections. It was over-conducted, and without a score, in excruciating detail with almost every musical event getting its own precisely aimed gesture. Not that there was anything wrong with any of them. In fact, they were all excellent and appropriate. There were just so many of them that his performance appeared to be more choreographed than spontaneous reactions to this specific performance. For example, in the opening of the third movement, why conduct the evocative and unaccompanied duet between the English Horn and oboe, which is offstage anyway?
But all of his perfectly presented conductorial indications were absolutely correct. Tempi were completely in line with the composer’s intentions. Energy occasionally flagged in the slower sections, but that might have been due to the exhausting schedule the orchestra has been keeping.
This era of doctorate-conferred and competition-laureled artists is now a firmly established norm, as the more traditional gumshoed career paths have become vestigial remnants of more regional days gone by. Its result is a performance homogenization that values technical perfection, with a degree of flash, above unique musical insights. The superstars of today and of the future — and we instinctively recognize them — are those who can rise above this situation by sheer force of their indivualistic musicianship. Perhaps Dinur will belong to this rarified group. He certainly has the tools to achieve it.
Of course, it is possible that he saw his appearance this weekend as another competition to win, since the musical directorship of the FWSO hangs in the balance.