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Review: Also sprach Zarathustra | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

Symphonic Novel

The Fort Worth Symphony beautifully performs the American premiere of Jimmy López's Symphony No. 1, based on a Cervantes novel.

published Saturday, January 12, 2019

Photo: Franciel Braga
Peruvian composer Jimmy López

Fort Worth — Peruvian composer Jimmy López has, in recent seasons, been well-represented on concerts of the Fort Worth Symphony. Friday night at Bass Performance Hall, the orchestra and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya continued that practice with the presentation of the American premiere of López’s most impressive extended symphonic work to date, his Symphony No. 1.

Subtitled “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda” (“The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda”), López’s Symphony asserts significance by its sheer breadth, stretching over 45 minutes; orchestration includes an extravagant array of percussion, including, among other items, bongos, Mexican wind whistle, and west African xequeré.

Inspired by the final novel of Miguel de Cervantes (author of the more famous Don Quixote), the work utilizes a traditional four-movement structure, based on the four “books,” or divisions, of Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. The movements are arranged in a traditional order, with substantial outer movements bookending a traditional slow movement and a quick scherzo. Grandeur of concept places this effort squarely in the tradition of 20th-century symphonists such as Sibelius, Hanson, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, but with a flavor and harmonic idiom both rooted in tradition but unique to López.

A simple ascending scale, quickly breaking into a lush harmonization, opens a first movement characterized by short but often passionate, constantly varied motifs. This flows toward a titanic dialogue of the percussion on one hand and the full orchestra on the other, before ultimately settling on a peaceful major chord.

The second movement features lilting, berceuse-like melodies enriched through chaconne-like variation and romantic gestures after rising to a fever pitch, this movement, the longest of the symphony, dies gently away. Jazzy syncopations within constantly shifting meters characterize the quick fourth movement with its joyous climax. After an ominous opening, the Finale builds to a grand climax and a thrilling coda, bringing an unfailingly engaging and unique work to a rousing close.

Lopez’s Symphony No. 1 definitely deserves repeated hearings and has potential for durability in the repertoire. At this American premiere (which is being recorded in this week’s concerts for eventual commercial release), the Fort Worth Symphony and conductor Harth-Bedoya skillfully traversed the work’s numerous difficulties steadily; the string section was in top mid-season form, with a rich, full tone matching total precision. This Symphony often becomes a “concerto for orchestra,” with numerous solos for principals, all brilliantly performed; concertmaster Michael Shih drew the most moments in the spotlight and responded superbly.

After intermission, Richard Strauss’ most famous extended tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, provided an interesting program pairing to follow up the López Symphony. Both works are lavishly scored; no doubt the potential box-office draw of the Strauss played a role in placing the work on a concert largely given over to a new, unfamiliar work. However, the juxtaposition of late German romanticism with López’s equally profuse 21st-century post-romanticism proved logical and intellectually stimulating.

Also sprach Zarathustra opens, of course, with one of the most famous and widely recognized moments in all of music, the rising brass fanfare with full orchestral response. This striking moment has been universally recognized since being featured in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968. The trumpet section gets the most chances to shine not only there but throughout the 35-minute length of the work, and principal trumpet Kyle Sherman performed magnificently in this exposed and difficult role. Concertmaster Shih once again performed impressively in his lengthy solo. Likewise, as in the López Symphony, the entire string section displayed superb tone and precision throughout. Conductor Harth-Bedoya, who has extensively explored the works of Strauss during his tenure with the orchestra, held this complex score together neatly, with engaging momentum.

In a side note, security at Bass Performance Hall has become increasingly rigid; patrons now submit to examination by airport-style hand-held metal detector wands on entering the lobby. One cannot help wondering whether this procedure is the result of specific security concerns or facility management paranoia. Thanks For Reading

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Symphonic Novel
The Fort Worth Symphony beautifully performs the American premiere of Jimmy López's Symphony No. 1, based on a Cervantes novel.
by Wayne Lee Gay

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