It is a difficult to write about a young artist at the beginning of his or her career. The annals of music history are littered with the now-forgotten bodies of youngsters that were pronounced geniuses at an early age. For every Mozart and Yo-Yo Ma that were crowned at the age of five as exceptional and who went on to astound the world, there is sad list of now-unknown names who were similarly crowned and didn't go on to astound anyone. Somehow, the young Brahms survived Schumann's lavish praise, but so many others withered under such expectations.
This brings us to the concert presented by the Fort Worth Symphony, which I saw on Saturday, as opposed to Friday, due to a scheduling conflict with the Dallas Opera's opening of a glorious La Traviata. An interview had already revealed that 19-year-old Utah native Will Hagen is an exceptional young man. Our conversation was absolutely delightful and his astute comments on music made a startling contrast to the fact that, upon enrolling for his freshman year, he was disappointed to learn that the Juilliard School of Music didn't field a baseball team.
So it is with some trepidation and fear of doing some unforeseen irreparable harm that I attended the concert. And, it is even with more caution that I am willing to say that, as my grandfather used to say "God willing and the creek don't rise," Will Hagen may one day be one of the greatest violinists of his generation.
It is a long and torturous way from his first assay of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in Bass Hall with the Fort Worth Symphony, to that eventual goal, but all the elements are in place. Fortunately, this writer is not the first to make such a declaration, nor will I be the last. But I do, indeed, make it unequivocally.
Hagen has a formidable technique and fine musical instincts, but so do a host of others his age, on all instruments. The secret sauce he adds to this mastery is a natural and unmanufactured touch of showmanship. His playing that thrills the audience, but without the over-the-top antics of a Lang Lang or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (both of whom, I might add, I admire greatly).
No, Hagen seems to fall smack-dab in the middle of the Goldilocks range. He is young but not boyish, technically prepared but not afraid to take chances, musically secure in his own opinions but not hubristic, and plays with an obvious and sincere love for the very act of making music. We somehow sense that he would be doing this even if we didn't pay him.
It's that sincerity that sets him apart. George Burns once famously said that if you can fake sincerity, you have it made. This line is only funny because of the assumption that it simply cannot be done. Hagen isn't faking, like others that shall go nameless. He truly is a sincere musician.
Hagen didn't present a note-perfect reading of Tchaikovsky's concerto on Saturday, but he certainly turned up a rip-snorting performance of the piece. The difference between those two concepts is a chasm that few can reach. The spontaneous standing ovation at the end of the first movement was a far cry from the obligatory and tepid standing ovation that seems to be de rigueur these days for anyone that didn't fall off of the stage by the end of the piece.
Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya did a fine job of collaborating, the orchestra played a superb accompaniment, and there was a feeling of being present at the start of a great career that came from players and audience alike. When all of the usually blasé orchestral musicians put down their instruments to applaud a soloist with both hands, you know that something exceptional has happened.
The program opened with a sensitive reading of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.
The performance of Dvorák's magnificent Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, which occupied the second half of the concert, only pointed out the differences that some (myself included) have with Harth-Bedoya in general, and let's be clear here, not with the excellent Fort Worth Symphony.
For the present, let's just briefly touch on the geeky discussion of his technical choices, such as how cavalierly he treats hemiola, which presented itself a number of times in the Dvorák. This is a passage where a composer notates the music in one time signature but emulates, for effect, another one for a few measures, by moving the accents. Brahms and Dvorák (among many others) loved this compositional devise. Harth-Bedoya just changes his bar lines, rather than gray them as the composer intended.
This aside, and as far as tempo, phrasing and expression goes, Harth-Bedoya's instincts are sure, laudable, erudite and inspiring.
The overriding problem is dynamics. We were barely to the end off the exposition of the first movement when the orchestra had already achieved its maximum volume level. Perhaps Harth-Bedoya found a mezzo piano (medium soft) somewhere along the way, like a penny in a parking lot, but a true piano (soft), let alone a pianissimo (very soft), failed to appear at all. Fortissimos (very very loud passages), on the other hand, appeared with exciting, but depreciating, regularity.
By the end of the symphony, which should have been the truly thrilling and goose-bumpy moment of the evening, I was looking at my watch.