Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony is to be lauded for presenting emerging artists. Unfortunately, all we usually get are violinists and pianists (with an occasional cellist), but it is still enjoyable to experience brilliant young talent at the beginning of a career.
Such was the case on Friday evening when 18-year-old violinist Simone Porter played Barber’s Violin Concerto. Although regular FWSO fans already know of his talent and bright future, conductor Andrés Franco turned in an impressive performance as well.
Franco was the associate conductor of the FWSO until recently, but is not listed as such in this program. Apparently, he has moved on to other positions and his appearance here is as a guest conductor. His biography still lists him as conductor of the Fort Worth Youth Philharmonic.
He led a spirited performance of Copland’s suite from his ballet Appalachian Spring and Shostakovich’s perplexing Symphony No. 9. He was a flexible and supportive partner for Porter in the Barber concerto.
Porter wore a lovely flowing apricot formal gown with a black halter. Her playing and demeanor matched her tasteful appearance. She took the stage with assurance and performed with some body movement, but no overwrought dramatics.
Like all artists these days, promising or established, Porter plays on a corporate-owned magnificent instrument: the 1745 J. B. Guadagnini violin. It has a beautiful and rich tone that projects easily over the orchestra. One suspects that she is not getting all the possible sound out of it because, in her hands it lacks some of the lower overtones that must be there, and is too heavy on treble. It could be the instrument or her use of the bow, but the sound was quite attractive nevertheless.
A good thing too, because a beautiful sound is necessary for the Barber concerto. In fact, such a sound and a helping of musicianship are the main requirements for a successful performance. Right from the opening note, Barber spins one gorgeous melody after another. The last movement presents some technical challenges, but it is not considered one of the more technically difficult concertos.
Porter played with a singer’s phrasing, taking time to breath between phrases. Her tempi were excellent and she (and Franco) made the most of Barber’s building and extended ritards that reach shattering resolutions. The one in the first movement was particularly well timed, allowing the timpani lots of room for the final lead in to the big moment.
Porter overplayed some of the ritards in the second movement, allowing herself to get carried away with the beauty of Barber’s lush melodic material, but she kept the piece moving forward even as she slowed to crawl.
The last movement was too fast. There is a section in the middle of this perpetual motion movement in which the winds have a “Turkish” motif to play, This, for better or for worse, has to set the tempo for the entire movement. When it is moving too fast, which it did in this performance, the passage sounds trivial, and a little silly, rather than offering some exotic seasoning. That said, many artists make the same error, probably because they want to show off their nimble fingers and this movement is the only place to do that. Faster is indeed impressive—for all but the one passage in the orchestra.
Franco is fine conductor with a sure podium technique. He shows good independence of the hands and a clear commutative beat. He also has a mastery of the architecture of the music and leads the audience through the piece to the end. Your interest never flags in his performances. He has a tendency to micromanage here and there. One example was the oboe solo that opens the second movement of the Barber, which would have been better if he just let the oboist play and act as accompanist.
Usually, his motions are controlled and contained within a reasonable frame. However, in the big moments, he gets extravagant and waves both arms around at a maximum. You would not really notice this if it only happened occasionally, but the same gesture appeared in every climatic moment in all of the pieces on the program. It became a mannerism.
The Copland offers multiple challenges to the conductor and Franco rose to the occasion. You have to get through all of the slow atmospheric sections without letting the forward motion stop and keep the faster moments moving without rushing. The conductor also has to conduct all of the mixed meter passages with a natural ease, otherwise the placement of the accents can sound forced and unnatural. You cannot be counting like crazy; the meter changes have to flow without effort. Franco did a fine job in both of these respects.
There is little to be done with the clunky set of variations on the tune “Simple Gifts.” Franco kept moving through the section without overplaying the loud moments and managed to make it all work.
Ever since Beethoven turned out his massive Ninth Symphony, with its outsized choral movement, addressing nothing less than the interconnectedness of all living creatures, composers have been leery of writing a symphony with the same number. Mahler got around that by writing symphonies after his eight, but calling them something else. Shostakovich felt the weight of this burden as well as the heavy hand of the state, which wanted a Soviet rival to Beethoven’s magnum opus. As a result, Shostakovich went in the other direction, writing a short, light-hearted, almost irreverent and slightly sarcastic symphony that was the complete opposite of what was expected.
Franco caught this jovial mood, with its slight undercurrent of bitterness. His performance danced blithely along and the players of the FWSO responded. Many had significant solo passages that remind us of what a fine orchestra this is. For one example, the bassoon rarely gets an extended solo ands Shostakovich writes a doozy in the third movement. This gave us a rare chance to hear principal bassoonist Kevin Hall and he was impressive indeed.
Franco brought out some details that are usually buried in the texture, such as the insistent dominate tonic resolution that the trombones keep insisting should happen in the first movement.
When it was all over, the audience responded warmly. We were aware that we had experienced young two artists with great potential. It will be interesting to keep an eye on both Porter and Franco to see what happens as they mature as artists. We will surely be hearing more from both of them in the future.