Fort Worth — The most-talked about performer at Friday evening’s Fort Worth Symphony concert was not pianist Steven Osborne, as one might expect. No, it was the didgeridoo player on the first piece of the evening, Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s “Earth Cry.” He played not one, but two, didgeridoos.
Although it sounds like a bit of Seussian madness—“didgeridoo times two! Times TWO!”—the net effect was rather magical. While the program notes suggest that the aboriginal Australian instrument is optional in Sculthorpe’s piece, the composition would have been far less compelling without it. The soloist, Dennis Klophaus, sat at the front of the stage, so that the audience could have an unobstructed view of his playing, which was quite skilled, or so it seemed to this didgeridoo tyro. The two instruments seemed to differ mainly in that they were tuned in different keys.
While the didgeridoo sounded its mournful cry, the strings had a repeated, propulsive rhythmic figure that transitioned into a more lyrical theme as the brass took up the rhythmic pattern. This relatively accessible piece, premiered in 1986, is a win for an orchestra determined to program contemporary music frequently. Audiences need to be exposed to music by living composers, but it’s helpful if at least some of that music is more fun than work to listen to.
The orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor with soloist Steven Osborne was a bit hit or miss. While the lyrical second movement was quite gorgeous, with sensitive playing from both the soloist and the orchestra, the first and third movements were less successful. Dynamic contrasts were often exciting, but at other times seemed overzealous. Articulation by the orchestra in particular was rather fuzzy in the first theme of the third movement, as if they hadn’t all made quite the same musical decisions.
The post-intermission Wagner, orchestral music from Götterdämmerung, had the advantage of being very, very loud. One member of the orchestra said that she’d told someone that there was a didgeridoo as part of the performance, and this person had exclaimed, “In the Wagner?”
The confusion is understandable, because Wagner uses just about every instrument imaginable EXCEPT a didgeridoo, including a brass instrument (aptly named the Wagner tuba) that he invented himself. There are two harps, a full complement of percussion instruments, three of each woodwind, six horns (four of whom double on the aforementioned Wagner tubas), three each trumpets and trombones, and a traditional tuba. Oh yes, and strings, of course. A lot of strings. In order to use this stageful of players to advantage, Wagner scores quite a lot of his music to be played loudly—really, really loudly.
It’s the symphonic equivalent of a Who concert…well, almost. The catch is that all this sonic bombast can’t be only loud. It has to be, at times, exciting and beautiful and scary and surprising. Although the playing was energetic for about the first two thirds of the half-hour piece and had some truly marvelous moments (including Mark Houghton’s offstage horn solo), the last third seemed to lose its momentum. Some of this was the playing, but some of it, in the orchestra’s defense, is the music. Thirty minutes of Wagnerian bombast, sans singers, is quite a lot.