The brilliant young violin virtuoso Stefan Jackiw's appearance with the Fort Worth Symphony was an eagerly anticipated event. His cancellation due to an injury was disappointing. However, no one complained when William Hagen took the stage. His FWSO debut in the 2011- '12 season playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto was a memorable event, as the 19-year-old virtuoso gave it a fresh-faced and nearly note-perfect performance. Here is my interview with him from that time.
On Friday, Hagen played Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, a stalwart standby for violinists ever since it was written in 1880 for the greatest violinist of the day, Pablo de Sarasate. This is a tuneful piece with some really difficult and showy passages. However, the lovely Scottish melodies are always the takeaway from a performance. Hagen caught the spirit of the work and gave it a wonderful rendition.
Hagen has matured considerably since he was last in Fort Worth. He exuded a confidence, and has a sure stage presence, that he lacked before. However, he needs to guard against his body language becoming mannered, such as always leaning back for a high note. He moves around more than he did before and, while it shows his great involvement in the music, sometimes his violin faced away from the audience and there was an appreciable drop in volume. However, none of this really mattered overall.
The Bruch is a work that many find overplayed and even tiresome in more pedantic, or worse, overly showy, hands. Hagen brought it to life. The word "fresh" once again comes to mind. This was the most enjoyable performance of this work in memory. Hagen got a standing ovation and, like the last time he appeared here, the orchestra members themselves applauded, especially the strings, rather than the polite bow taps that even the biggest stars elicit.
Bruch uses the harp extensively in his Fantasy as a hat tip to Scotland, where the harp is an instrument used to accompany folk songs. The harpist, listed in the program as "position vacant" did a fine job and got a well-deserved solo bow.
Unlike other series around town, the program opened with a work by a living composer. The FWSO has a dedication to the music of our time that makes their concerts alive and vibrant. Those two adjectives perfectly describe Gabriela Frank's Three Latin-American Dances.
Born in 1972, Frank is a fascinating combination of ethnic backgrounds. Her father is an American of Lithuanian Jewish heritage and her mother is Peruvian of Chinese descent. They met when her father was a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru in the 1960s. She was one of the holders of the FWSO's composer-in-residence chair.
This ethnic mixture has had a great effect on her music. In an interview for the online magazine NewMusicBox with Frank J. Oteri, she said, "I think the music can be seen as a by-product of my always trying to figure out how Latina I am and how gringa I am." These three dances, however, are completely from the Latina side.
Musical Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, being from Peru himself, gave these three exotic and dynamic dances an exciting performance. The percussion section had a workout and acquitted themselves well throughout.
The Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 occupied the second half of the program. This is the composer's most well-known and frequently performed symphony. In his preconcert remarks, Harth-Bedoya said that this was the composer's sunniest symphony and influenced by his delightful trip to Italy. His performance reflected this statement perfectly.
However, his entire premise is debatable, to be kind about it. Most authorities say that the symphony is about the struggle for Finnish independence at a time of domination by Russia. The vacant, frozen and craggy Finnish landscape is evident from the opening measures. That is, if you take it at the composer's andante, ma non troppo tempo marking. Harth-Bedoya took it at a cheery allegro and it changed the entire character of the music. It sounded more like Mendelssohn than Sibelius.
Tempo was the problem throughout the performance as uncharacteristic pacing transmogrified the music. Another problem is that this music repeats itself within the movements. Sibelius makes the same buildup to the big moments a number of times. To pull this off, each must be bigger than the last so that the final repeat of the material is a thrilling moment. Harth-Bedoya played them all the same, at top volume from the first occurrence. Instead of an inexorable build to a shattering moment, the symphony simply sounded repetitious.
The FWSO played beautifully nevertheless. All of the principal winds gave beautiful renditions of the many solo passages. Principal oboist Jennifer Corning Lucio gave a lovely rendition of the solo in the trio section of the scherzo. It is too bad Harth-Bedoya didn't give her some time to play it with some rubato. The bassoon duet in octaves was also a standout with Principal Kevin Hall and his assistant Cara Owens completely in tune with each other. The horns and trombones opened up the chorales with a blaze of glory and principal trumpet Adam Gordon did a great job in his solo passages.
No interpretation of a work is ever wrong, even if the majority disagrees. Harth-Bedoya frequently has his own take on the masterworks and many of his interpretations make you rethink pieces that have become stale in a procession of performances that are "like we have always done it." Thus, his take on the Sibelius certainly wasn't wrong in any real sense of the word. It just didn't sound like Sibelius and didn't work for me.