Fort Worth — The programing was traditional Friday night when the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra took the stage at Bass Performance Hall, with the time-honored pattern of overture, concerto, and symphony, featuring largely standard works and well-known composers from the 19th century.
But the results were anything but mundane or conventional when guest conductor Andrew Grams took the podium and lifted his baton.
With two very familiar large works in the pipeline, Grams opened with the one outlier of the evening, Robert Schumann’s Overture to Hermann und Dorothea. This seldom-performed work from Schumann’s final period was to have been the opening section of an opera Schumann never got around to writing. As Grams pointed out in onstage comments, he was conducting it for the first time, and he reasonably conjectured that no one in the audience had ever heard it performed live and no one in the orchestra had played it in public before.
Hermann und Dorothea is definitely not a rousing curtain raiser, but instead presents some intriguingly arranged material, beginning with a lopsided but ear-catching melody in the lower strings that constantly banters back and forth with a (dare one suggest?) deliberately banal setting of La Marseillaise. (This represents the French invasion of western Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, the setting of the never-composed opera.) Schumann here supplied the string section with plenty of richly scored material, and Grams, himself a violinist with copious orchestral experience, clearly had a gift for bringing out the best in the Fort Worth Symphony strings.
Max Bruch, a friend of Brahms, wrote several hundred works, of which only three have survived in the standard repertoire. His Violin Concerto No. 1, here performed with Simone Porter as soloist, always impresses with its succinct and innovative structure, unfailingly engaging material, superb and original command of traditional harmony, and, especially, its gorgeous, Mahleresque slow movement. One might well wonder why Bruch never managed to produce another hit item at this level.
Bruch gives the capable violin soloist a wonderful showcase in the opening phrase, stretching from the bottom to the top of the instrument’s range; Porter immediately demonstrated total technical command, virtuosic flair, and a beautiful tone across the spectrum, which she continued to display throughout the concerto and its dramatic journey. Her part often holds the spotlight with soaring melody, and just as often presents lyrical commentary to the orchestra’s pronouncements; she played both roles with appealing presence and consistently beautiful tone. Conductor Grams here continued to coax a silken tone and precise execution from the strings, and to handsomely explore the neatly constructed textures of the orchestral part.
Brahms’ beloved and very familiar Symphony No. 2 closed the program after intermission. Grams lovingly caressed the gentle introduction, all the while inexorably pulling toward the grand main theme of the movement. Likewise, In the second movement, with its noble opening theme for the cellos, he constantly brought out Brahms’ rich counterpoint with detailed internal shaping of phrases as well as impressive command of the larger structure. After the delicacies of the third movement, Grams presented the Finale as a gradually building up of controlled ecstasy, the essence of Brahms’ large-scale symphonic works.
Grams produced an unfailingly fine impression in this concert, bringing a touch of adventure to a traditional program, a sense of musicality and artistry in respect to both minute detail as well as the larger architecture of these works, and an ability to bring this orchestra up to its highest technical level. This audience member would certainly not mind seeing Grams come under consideration for the soon-to-be-vacant post of music director of the Fort Worth Symphony.