Fort Worth — African American musicians and, especially, conductors are woefully underrepresented in classical music. In fact, I believe that conductor Roderick Cox, taking the podium to lead the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, was the first Black conductor I have ever seen on a classical series concert with any orchestra. (He also conducted an all-Beethoven program the following weekend with the Dallas Symphony; the review is available here.)
Playing for a reduced audience in Will Rogers Auditorium, since Bass Hall is closed through at least the end of 2020, the orchestra under Cox’s direction performed a full-length but intermissionless program of familiar favorites, not to say warhorses. But in a time when live music performances are for some of us like oases in the desert, familiar favorites are most welcome.
Cox and the FWSO began with Prokofiev’s lively Symphony No. 1. Known as the “Classical,” it in fact takes its cue from Mozartian classicism, but with Prokofiev’s distinct stamp. Premiered in 1918, it is one of the earliest examples of neoclassicism. It is also a challenging piece even under ideal circumstances—the string parts in particular are quite tricky—and performing in Will Rogers is far from ideal. There is no shell, so woodwinds’ sound especially tends to float up and away, and sound doesn’t blend, meaning that every individual problem is highlighted. The winds used two layers of Plexiglas, too, between themselves and the strings. That did the sound production no favors.
Still, the orchestra gamely fought through these obstacles to produce a concert that was at times a real delight. Cox is lean and lithe, with a loose-limbed, graceful podium presence. He seems to provide a clear downbeat, but too frequently turns to his left to focus on the first violins. The second violins were arranged at the front of the stage, across from the firsts, and were having a bit of a struggle during the performance I heard. That could not have been helped by Cox frequently turning his back to them to cue their colleagues in other sections.
Nevertheless, Cox seemed to have clear musical ideas—the third movement of the Prokofiev, for instance, marked Gavotte: Non troppo allegro, he began at a slower tempo than is usual. This allowed even more emphasis on Principal Flute Jake Fridkis’ solo, which was finely crafted but which, unsurprisingly under the circumstances, didn’t carry well. In the technically difficult final movement, marked Molto Vivace, the first violins availed themselves beautifully, especially under the circumstances, with clean playing.
Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez was the highlight of the performance—guitarist Jason Vieaux brought a humane, relaxed approach to this best-known of guitar concertos, and the famous extended English Horn solo in the second movement was played with heartrendingly beautiful phrasing and tone by Roger Roe. (Roe, a Lewisville native and SMU product, normally plays with the Indianapolis Symphony, which has canceled its 2020-2021 season. Indy’s loss is our boon—the FWSO is lucky enough to get his fine playing all season long.)
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” was, like the Prokofiev, a bit of a mixed bag musically. Social distancing onstage created some ensemble issues both within and between sections, as would be expected under such trying circumstances, but it was still a satisfying performance. Cellos sounded marvelous on the whole, with some gorgeous sounds from both violas and cellos in their second movement tutti. Principal Bassoon Jack Peña offered some brilliant solo turns, as well.
Live music in the time of COVID is a challenging thing. We are lucky, however, that both our Dallas and Fort Worth symphonies are performing live concerts. That’s not the case in many parts of the country. So far, at least, safety protocols seem to be working well, although the two orchestras have chosen different strategies. The FWSO is allowing larger audiences—up to about 25% of Will Rogers’ capacity—which means that caution must be exercised when leaving in order to ensure social distancing. But otherwise, I felt reasonably safe. The Plexiglas shields for winds, masks for strings, and distancing for all creates some level of safety for the players. This must have been an exhausting performance for the musicians, though, sans intermission. The Beethoven is tiring to perform, by itself. Add the demands of the Prokofiev and the Rodrigo to the mix and that makes for a long performance with no break. But the orchestra is certainly making the best of difficult circumstances, giving us an opportunity to hear live orchestral music while many communities around the country cannot.