Fort Worth — Just a few days into 2016 and we already have a Top Ten contender from the Fort Worth Symphony. Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s transformation into a truly great conductor over the past three seasons was brought into clear focus as he led the Fort Worth Symphony in what was probably the best live performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” in memory. Also on the program are two works by compositeur de jour Mason Bates: his orchestral work Mothership and his Cello Concerto.
My advice: Stop reading this review right now and get a ticket for the remaining performance (Sunday at 2 p.m.) so you can experience the Beethoven for yourself.
Mason Bates’ music is out of the minimalist school, but he brings a 21st Century voice to the mix. He is in his 30s, looks like he is in his teens, and the influences of the MTV and DJ-driven world of music that saturates the culture today are his salt and pepper. In a rather lengthy discussion with Harth-Bedoya, while the stage was reset for the concerto, he called his inspiration “techno” and “electronic dance music.” In fact, when he is not busy as composer-in-residence for the likes of the Chicago Symphony, he works as a DJ in some of the most exclusive dance clubs around. (Brahms played piano in beer halls as a youngster.)
Mothership was written for the YouTube Symphony orchestra in 2011. Young people from all over the world auditioned by video and a vibrant orchestra was the result. Since then, the piece has been played frequently, but not in the Metroplex (I think).
This is an energetic piece in the form of a scherzo, much like the one in the Beethoven symphony. Bates uses minimalism as a basis but his influences are the aforementioned techno dance and swing, topped with a dollop of Leonard Bernstein.
The first section features a dance beat underneath the orchestral colorings. Bates, bobbing up and down in the middle of the orchestra, played this laptop like a trap set in a rock band, offering what sounded like a short in the speakers on the beats like a ride cymbal. In the trio section, a cello solo, beautifully played by principal cellist Allan Steele, took a while to get going. The return of the first part, typical of all scherzo movements, brought the work to an exciting close. The audience loved it.
Bates’ Cello Concerto was more minimalism, but less techno-infused that Mothership. It also lacked the electronica that Bates played in the earlier piece. Cellist Joshua Roman, in a red tux and sporting a mop of blond curls, completely inhabited the piece. He should—it was written for him.
Other than the novel use of a guitar pick to play a pizzicato section, this was all fairly standard virtuosic cello writing without any alternative techniques. A duet with concertmaster Michael Shih in the langweilig last movement was a highlight. Harth-Bedoya did a remarkable job of conducting all of the complex mixed meter changes. Overall, this is a fine concerto that should get more performances, if only because it brings a fresh voice to the repertoire.
Now to the Beethoven.
Over the past three seasons, Harth-Bedoya’s performances have increasingly taken on a new maturity. His podium technique has refined, using a much smaller frame with smaller, more exact, gestures, and his interpretations have deepened noticeably. With all of this in mind, a fine reading of the Beethoven was expected, but what we heard went far beyond “fine” and into “great.” He accomplished this magic by ignoring all the justifiable hype surrounding this symphony as a game changer in music history, eschewing the “Eroica” label (which was added later anyway) and playing it like the Beethoven symphony that comes between Nos. 2 and 4.
The hype is hard to resist. This symphony was indeed a landmark composition that had far-reaching influence. Further, it was written with Napoleon Bonaparte in mind who, at the time of its composition, appeared to represent all of the virtues of the French Revolution. When Napoleon crowned his own head as emperor, a deeply disappointed Beethoven flew into a rage and tore up the dedicatory page. Nevertheless, we all know that Beethoven was not trying to create a monument to Bonaparte, but to what he and the revolution embodied. Thus, most conductors approach the symphony as something sacred and as immense and weighty as the universe itself. Mahler-esque, as it were.
Not so on Friday evening. Harth-Bedoya, sticking close to Beethoven’s marked tempi, liberated the third symphony from its museum captivity and reverential pedestal and simply played the music in the score, without the proffered ponderous program.
This was noticeable from the opening statement of the first theme. Although it is often played like something from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, this theme’s beginning phrase is nothing more than a trip up and down the E flat major arpeggio. You can easily find such opening themes in the works going back to Bach or Haydn, but admittedly with a typical Beethovenian surprise at the end. Harth-Bedoya’s lighter reading of this opening made the phrase more natural fit with the second half of the opening theme, which is a delightful and breezy flourish that leads back to home base.
So, only moments into the symphony, we knew that this was going to be a revelatory performance. And so it proved to be. This less profound reading also had the remarkable effect of unifying the entire symphony. The last two movements often feel tacked on, lacking the grandeur of the first two. However, with Harth-Bedoya’s unweighting of the first two, the scherzo was a zippy sorbet intermezzo and the last movement deservedly came into focus as a magnificent set of variations.
Many disparage the theme of the last movement as childish, with its three-note responsive knocking. In Harth-Bedoya’s hands, it was easy to see why Beethoven loved its flexibility and used it for two other variation-based pieces (reportedly, it was also his favorite theme for his improvisations at the piano).
There were more refreshing touches, turns of phrases, fresh voicing and uncovered details this performance revealed than another 1,000 words could relate. But not far into the first movement, the notebook was ignored and the critic’s hat was removed so I could sit back and just experience the moment.