Fort Worth — A brilliant melding of bravura with musical sensitivity by British pianist Stephen Hough provided the highlight of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s concert Friday night at Bass Performance Hall.
Hough joined the orchestra and guest conductor Ruth Reinhardt midway through the program for Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, a work definitely of the romantic era but solidly based in classicism. In keeping with the mood of the 1830s, the technical demands are considerable, and the aura passionately emotional, but the sometimes-lean textures and adamantly balanced structure of the piece are rooted in the era of Haydn and Mozart.
And therein lies the challenge of presenting this sometimes-overlooked masterpiece in the modern concert hall. Pianist Hough, whose career has been built around the combination of flawlessly athletic command of technique with intellectual insight, is a perfect advocate of the work.
The first movement presents storms of roiling pianistic passagework over dark harmonies; Hough, conductor Reinhardt, and the orchestra here collaborated neatly. Hough then created the most striking impression of the evening in the slow middle movement, with a beautifully timed, sometimes breathtakingly suspenseful rubato; he likewise discovered a marvelous array of pianistic colors here.
A trumpet fanfare announces the Finale and the return of the rapid-fire virtuosity of the first movement , this time aimed towards a more cheerful climax. Here, conductor Reinhardt guided the assembled forces into that special Mendelssohnian magic reminiscent of the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music. Hough responded to the audience calls for encore with the delicate textures and trills of one of Grieg’s short Lyrical Pieces.
The concert had opened with Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes of 1942; most of the full orchestra, having been onstage for the National Anthem, exited for this piece, leaving a chamber orchestra of about two dozen for the pungent, neo-baroque energy of these five short, concise movements, akin to the composer’s more familiar L’Histoire du soldat and Pulcinella. Conductor Reinhardt, familiar to regional audiences from her tenure as assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra 2016-18, conducted with her characteristic energetic intensity.
The program was admirably plotted to advance from small to large, opening with chamber orchestra for the Stravinsky and advancing to the early romantic breadth of the Mendelssohn concerto before landing, after intermission, on the grand proportions of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, from 1919. The orchestra delivered the many strikingly gorgeous lyrical moments; Reinhardt, however, never found convincing momentum in Sibelius’ ambitious but, for the conductor, challenging structure. Just as Mendelssohn lingered between classicism and romanticism in the Piano Concerto in G minor, Sibelius, a century later, married late romantic gesture with experimental architecture; Reinhardt struggled to bring those two elements together convincingly.