Fort Worth — It is an unexpected pleasure to be able to watch an artist grow up, both physically and musically. Such is the case with violinist Will Hagen. When the Fort Worth Symphony presented the Utah native in 2012, it was a remarkable introduction of a gifted 19-year-old musician. He received glowing reviews of his fresh performance of Tchaikovsky's tuneful violin concerto from me and my colleagues. On Friday evening, once again with the Fort Worth Symphony in Bass Hall, Hagen ably demonstrated that our predictions were fast becoming fact.
In 2012, this is what I wrote (the complete review is here):
“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.”
On Friday, ably assisted by guest conductor Alejandro Posada, he played the third violin concerto, in B minor, by Camille Saint-Saëns. While this work is not as technically difficult as the composer's second violin concerto, it still presents great challenges. Hagen tossed it off with the same sheer joy of making music that caused everyone to sit up and take notice in 2012.
Right from the muscular opening, all played with rich and burnished sound he gets from the G string, Hagen laid down a marker this this was going to be a barnburner of a performance. However, there was considerably more show in his playing than before. Releases from the big phrases were punctuated with a giant sweep of the bow. If the phrase ended in the upper positions, Hagen dramatically bent backwards, almost to the point of an accomplished limbo dancer.
This was all a bit much and, as the performance continued, the back bends began to look like an affectation. Trying to look like a “great violinist” runs contrary to Hagen's outstanding trait, which is his honest and forthright approach that communicates directly to the audience. There is an overload of young violinists who graduate every year from the conservatories and universities around the world. Technical mastery is commonplace these days and expected from anyone who identifies themselves as a violinist (or any other instrumentalist for that matter). This fact was proven at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, as one pianist after another played the most difficult pieces in the repertoire.
As the stripper Tessie Tura says in the musical Gypsy, “Ya gotta get a gimmick.” Translated to the concert stage, this means that you have to have something that sets you a part from the talented and polished hordes of coming up behind you and the established masters in front. Hagen's “gimmick” is his open, unadorned and unaffected playing style, combined with all of the technical tools he needs. He is a welcome relief from the highly choreographed performers that are putting on a show to elicit the adoration of the audience. If he loses that, his future may be dimmer.
But his flourishes didn't detract from his musically excellent performance of the concerto. This is a good piece for Hagen at this stage of his career and he made the most of it. One thing that stood out was his dead center intonation. One example came early on in the concerto as he flashed through a passage of parallel octaves; the ultimate intonation test for string players. He also caught the constantly changing mood of the composer. The long spinning melodic phrases of the second movement and the technical brilliance that is scattered throughout the concerto were all played with a sensitivity to the composer's intent.
The audience loved it and gave him a rapturous ovation when it was over.
The remainder of the program was in Posada's hands with mixed results. He led the orchestra in Nikos Skalkottas' Five Greek Dances and Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4. The presentation of Skalkottas' piece is part of a highly laudable decision by Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya to include something written by a composer of our time and also from a country whose composers are rarely heard in America. Other performing organizations should do the same.
Skalkottas' dances were a delightful discovery. The work is reminiscent of many other compositions based on folk inspirations, such as Romanian rhapsodies by a plethora of composers: Brahms, Liszt, Bartok and Enescu, to name a few. These composers took disparate folk materials and solidified them into a definable style that is immediately recognized by the audience. This process is much like a breakthrough chef, such as Julia Child, who sets a standard for a particular cuisine. “This is French food,” she boldly states. “This is Greek folk music,” says the Greek-born Skalkottas.
Robert Schumann's remarkable Forth Symphony closed the program.
Guest conductor Alejandro Posada was born in 1965, so he doesn't quite fit in he category of rising young talent, but that is the impression you get watching him on the podium. He still has, and probably always will have, a youthful appearance that is awash in eager energy. There were times when he jumped in the air with exuberance. Thus it was surprising that he exaggerates the down tempi, taking them decidedly slower than the composer intended. The opening of the Schumann seemed to last for hours. The designated slow movement nearly came to a stop. Most of his reading of the slow parts of the symphony was lugubrious, loud and labored. If you thought the opening of the second movement was too slow, that material was played even slower when it returned at the end of the movement.
In the fast spots, things were considerably better. In fact, some passages in the third movement were so lickety-split that they were a blur because the players had trouble keeping up. The end of the last movement has two spots in which the speed is bumped up. This means that the initial tempo must be able to accommodate two tempo increases. Posada's starting tempo dictated an ending that, while exciting, was sufficed with danger, much like a runaway train. The FWSO did an excellent job of keeping up. But at the very end, Posada pulled his punch by adding in an unmarked huge ritard at the very end instead of charging to the finish line.
This might be something discovered by musicologists of which I am unaware—after all Schumann made extensive alterations to the symphony after its first performance—but it didn't work for me.