Johannes Moser
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Review: Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

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The Fort Worth Symphony is on its way back to pre-strike glory, with a mostly successful concert of Dvorak, Saint-Saëns and Colombian composer Victor Agudelo. But what's up with Bass Hall's bag search?

published Sunday, February 26, 2017

Composer Victor Agudelo
Photo: Manfred Esser-Haenssler
Cellist Johannes Moser


Fort Worth — Going to a symphony concert is supposed to be a pleasant event, a treat even. We get a bit dressed up, we wear our fancy shoes and carry our nicest bags. But now, at Bass Performance Hall, those bags are being peered into, albeit superficially, by an usher with a flashlight, as uniformed police officers stand by, and signs outside declare that bags larger than 12” x 12” x 4” are forbidden. (Note to musicians: it is my understanding that instrument cases are also forbidden, so expect that you cannot bring your instrument into the lobby.) When I stopped to make (rather indignant) inquiries of an usher— “When did this begin?” “What is its purpose?”—a woman swept by and announced, “It’s for our safety!”

Organist H. Joseph Butler

No. No it’s not. Anyone who wanted to hide contraband could easily do so. Men are not being frisked. It is just handbags that are being searched, and they did not look in my bag past the reporter’s notebook and keys that were sitting on top. (Another hint: a friend who lives in a place where these searches are evidently common notes that a layer of tampons, strategically placed, will serve as a deterrent to ushers from digging deeply into one’s bag. You’re welcome.)

These searches do not make us appreciably safer. They do bring us incrementally closer, though, to viewing invasions of our privacy as normative, especially for women, who are most likely to carry search-worthy bags. (Now, if you want to stop folks at the door because they have loads of jangly bracelets or tubercular coughs, as did the pair of women sitting behind me Friday, be my guest. That would truly be an intervention that would serve us all.)

So—the music. The Fort Worth Symphony is, for the most part, back in fine form after the strike that lost us the first half of its season. Miguel Harth-Bedoya was on the podium, and promoted the music of a young Latin-American composer, this time the Colombian Victor Agudelo in his brief piece “La Madre de Agua,” based upon the Colombian myth of Mother Water, a river nymph who lures male children to drown themselves in the river.

Harth-Bedoya conducted an interview with the composer before the performance, an interview that was almost as long as the piece itself. Agudelo explained the myth underlying the piece, the extended piano technique used, and the use of the cajón, or percussion box. While somewhat overlong in this case, this kind of explanation, especially with the composer him- or herself, gives audiences an idea about what to listen for in a new work. In this case, though, Agudelo’s piece didn’t appear to have much direction, at least on first hearing. The orchestra’s playing was competent, but the music itself seemed reliant upon extended technique such as col legno (playing with the stick of the bow rather than the hair) in the strings and percussion blasts to get our attention.

The program quickly moved from the unfamiliar to the iconic with Johannes Moser’s performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Moser has technique to burn, but a flair for theatricality that borders on the comic, whipping his bow above his head at the ends of particularly dramatic phrases. I worried for his rotator cuff. Still, the performance was a compelling one. The first movement began at a fast but not unjustifiable tempo, and included a lovely horn solo by Molly Norcross. Moser projects impressively in all dynamic ranges, and has a huge dynamic range and palette of tonal colors. Further, his stopped glissandi are a wonder. This is a piece well-suited to this flamboyant cellist—he recorded it, in fact, with Jakub Hrůša, who is guest conducting the Dallas Symphony this weekend. While there was some occasional messiness in the winds and brass, overall the orchestra supported Moser effectively. The duo near the end of the final movement between Moser and concertmaster Michael Shih was especially sweet, highlighting both musicians’ lyricism.

The Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 is subtitled the “Organ” symphony, for the obvious reason that a pipe organ plays an unusual and significant role in the piece. This is problematic at Bass Hall, because the hall has no organ, so the orchestra is forced to employ an electronic replacement. That can only be a poor substitute for the real thing. Still, organist H. Joseph Butler’s playing was commanding, and unlike the Dallas Symphony’s performance of the piece a few months ago, during which Jaap van Zweden reduced the organ’s role to a sad little whisper, Miguel Harth-Bedoya let ‘er rip. The famous entrance of the organ in the second (and final) movement was suitably—well, not quite thrilling, on an electronic organ, but as close to thrilling as it could be, under the circumstances. Although the orchestra generally played well, balance was strange in some spots, with overmuch piano and percussion in particular.

This is an orchestra that seems to have bounced back from its recent strike in fine form. They are worth hearing. But being searched at the door does not leave a good first impression. Please rethink your policy, Performing Arts Fort Worth. Thanks For Reading

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The Fort Worth Symphony is on its way back to pre-strike glory, with a mostly successful concert of Dvorak, Saint-Saëns and Colombian composer Victor Agudelo. But what's up with Bass Hall's bag search?
by J. Robin Coffelt

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