Fort Worth — Three standing ovations. The Sept. 11 Fort Worth Symphony concert featured three pieces, and the audience rewarded every one with a standing O. It’s commonplace that Fort Worth audiences are often sparser than their Dallas counterparts, but at least since Miguel Harth-Bedoya took up the baton in Fort Worth, the audience members have been enthusiastic if not as numerous as might be wished.
Thoughtful programming such as that on the first Symphonic Series program of the year may be part of the reason for the ardent audience response. Conventional wisdom has it that audiences will be turned off by contemporary music. Thus, some orchestras perpetually play it safe, performing the same familiar works over and over.
Not the Fort Worth Symphony. For the last several seasons, they have advocated for living composers, with mostly successful results. The key is that many of the works, although unfamiliar to nearly all listeners, are accessible and even fun. Such was certainly the case Friday night with Adam Schoenberg’s American Symphony.
Schoenberg is a 35-year-old American serving as the Fort Worth Symphony’s visiting composer this season. He wears his youth well, bounding on stage Friday night in hipster-perfect burnt orange skinny jeans and a shrunken navy blazer. He provided well-chosen remarks, telling the audience that, like Copland’s Symphony No. 3, his American Symphony contains an extractable fanfare. This is an ambitious pursuit, considering that Copland’s fanfare is of course the ubiquitous “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
Although Schoenberg has set a high bar for himself, a bar, which his symphony does not quite hit, his five-movement piece has much to recommend it: it is lively, accessible, and audience-friendly without being bland or trite. It generally evokes a neo-Romantic style, with splashes of patriotic verve.
The orchestra struggled a bit with what was clearly technically difficult new music, though, with a few exceptions. In the second movement, “White on Blue,” mallet percussion is highlighted, and the glockenspiel and marimba playing Friday night was luminous and sensitive.
When tackling more familiar fare, though, the orchestra glowed. Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier treated audiences to a delicate and effectively phrased rendition of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat Major, K. 365. The orchestra got out of their way, skillfully echoing the pair’s phrasing choices but never overpowering them. The two pianists complemented each other while retaining distinctive solo voices.
Rachmaninoff’s final composition, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, is a wonder. It includes numerous quotations from Rachmaninoff’s other works, an alto saxophone solo (unique to Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre), and in the final movement, tellingly, quotations of the Dies Irae, the death theme, in a sort of battle with another theme signifying resurrection. (Spoiler alert: resurrection wins out.) Rachmaninoff was a melodist, and this piece is no exception, with gorgeous tunes aplenty.
For the most part, the Fort Worth Symphony was up to the task of this piece. There were some ragged entrances and a few balance problems, as well as a draggy tempo in the first movement, but the thrilling bombast of the last movement made for a fine ending to a pleasing night of music-making. Does any concert deserve three standing ovations? I’m not sure of that, and these days standing ovations are given out willy-nilly. But if standing O’s translate into more tickets sold, then stand on.