Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony played a huge program of much-loved works on Friday evening: Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a; Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1; Smetana’s “The Moldau” from Má vlast; and closed with Debussy’s La Mer. It featured artists that are on beginning to appear on most musicians’ radar as performers to watch. But once the concert began, high expectations were almost immediately dashed by slipshod performances.
There is plenty of blame to distribute but the bulk of it has to be laid at the feet of guest conductor Eugene Tzigane. Perhaps rehearsal time was limited and this was a big program with very difficult pieces to play, but especially to conduct.
Right from the beginning with The Star-Spangled Banner, Tzigane took a ponderous tempo, which he slathered with inappropriate rubato and enormous gestures. Thus, not only was it ponderous, it was ragged. Fort Worth audiences lustily sing this perennial program starter with many soprani in the audience taking the optional high note on the word “free.” Not this time. Because of the tempo, most singers were worn out by the time that dénouement arrived.
The above paragraph applied to the entire concert. Tzigane certainly looked like a conductor, with his dramatic gestures.
However, his baton technique looked better than it actually was. Many of his movements lacked a precise ictus, causing an uncharacteristically sloppy performance with ragged entrances and some notable intonation troubles. He also frequently reached triple forte, blunting its effect when required to create the thrill at the biggest moments.
An aside: The last time he appeared with the orchestra, critic Wayne Gay had similar complaints. He wrote that “…poor balance between orchestra and piano, and a sometimes-careless approach from conductor Tzigane put a drag on the long evening.” You can read his full review here.
All that aside, my biggest complaint about Tzigane was his lack of an understanding of the architecture of the pieces on the program and a lack of understanding of the composer’s voice. Britten’s highly evocative and hushed opening started out too loudly and that pattern held true throughout. It just didn’t sound like Britten. Things improved thereafter. Smetana’s “The Moldau” flowed along and he did his best job on Debussy’s La Mer, obviously a signature work for him.
Cellist Maja Bogdanović delivered an impassioned performance of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1. This is a showpiece for the instrument, but its structure can give the performers some musical problems. It is written as one movement, but divided into three parts. However, the listener could easily mistake it for one large structure. This is mostly because the last section uses material from the first movement, giving it the feel of a recapitulation in a standard Sonata Allegro form.
Bogdanović certainly has the chops to play the concerto’s many challenges brilliantly and her big sound was always prominent, even in the heaviest orchestrated moments. The sound also had quite a lot of variety, depending on Saint-Saëns’ musical demands, which kept her performance interesting and helped to separate the sections for the listener.