Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony’s classical season opener proffered a seminal event: Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s final season in the role. Adding to that already extraordinary mix was the hotly anticipated appearance of the winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Korean pianist Yukwon Sunwoo, playing Rachmaninoff’s much-loved third piano concerto. The program also sported the world premiere of a new work commissioned from Texas Christian University’s composition professor, Till MacIvor Meyn. It was bestowed on Harth-Bedoya as an appreciation gift by the FWSO. (Perhaps this is the musical version of the corporate gold watch as a retirement gift?)
However, in spite of all of the superb music making by all involved, the overall effect was surprisingly slighter than anticipated. Still, judging by the series of superlative ovations that the concert generated throughout, others thought differently about the proceedings, which (admittedly) occasionally occur.
The concert opened with Meyn’s sort-of minimalist tribute to Harth-Bedoya, aptly named Remix. A motive based on the initials MHB resounded throughout, but that was the only discernible connecting factor. Remix is a busy piece. Solos for the principal players abound — the composer announced from the stage that this was a favor to his friends in the orchestra — but they didn’t occur in any particular order. Many interesting melodic fragments floated around but never coalesced into a theme.
Remix is replete with ostinato — including an intriguing one scored in the super-high squeaky range of the violins — that are overwhelmed with roars descending from elsewhere in the orchestra’s instrumental families. Harth-Bedoya had his own conducting challenge posed by all of the mixed-meter accents. The work got busier and busier, driven by throbbing chords in the brass, with the percussionists hitting anything available and the timpani going nuts, leading up to a tutta forza ending with a dramatic cut-off and a stinger delivered by Harth-Bedoya.
Overall, Remix is an exciting piece and the performance was bursting with energy. The audience loved it.
The Rachmaninoff concerto that followed is a surefire audience-pleaser for pianists capable of surmounting its legendary difficulties. Sunwoo demonstrated that he has the requisite chops when he played it in 2017 to win the Cliburn Gold. On Friday evening, he returned to the venue of his Cliburn triumph, Bass Performance Hall, to once again successfully deal with the concerto’s mind-blowing challenges. He even played the transcendental, expanded, first-movement cadenza, which even Rachmaninoff himself occasionally eschewed in live performances.
This was a noticeably more thoughtful and reflective reading of the concerto, probably derived from Sunwoo’s musical experiences in the post-Cliburn world that furthered his obvious transformation from wunderkind into maturing artist.
Right from the start with the simple octave statement of the main theme, his approach was reserved and brought to mind the 14th- century proverb, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.” As the first movement progressed, Sunwoo played much of it as accompanist to the orchestra, as the composer intended, rather than turning these passages into virtuoso displays.
One of the more remarkable demonstrations of musical maturity came with the arrival of the aforementioned devil-spawned cadenza. Sunwoo immersed us in its brilliantly written music to such a point that its awe-inspiring technical demands faded into the background instead of the more usually heard reversal of his intelligent interpretation. And so it went with one unique musical revolution presented after another. Maestro Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra were with him the entire way.
Throughout the concerto’s playing, Sunwoo lavished his performance with ladles of rubato gravy and generous ritards, but this was the performance practice prevalent for the period of its premiere. We must remind ourselves that this piece was written in 1909, which was well within in the era of late romanticism’s last gasp — the same year when Gustav Mahler’s lush Das Lied von der Erde shared the spotlight with Anton Webern’s revolutionary, succinct and arid Five Movements for String Quartet Op. 5.
Impossible to say for certain, but when the concerto finished, the audience reaction was probably enhanced, as opposed to diminished, by Sunwoo’s preference of music over flash — whether this was a conscious decision or not matters little.
Brahms’ autumnal Symphony No. 4 reflects the success of his lifelong search for perfection. Even the sublime opening melody consists of little more than rocking thirds answered by their own inversion. Much was expected of this performance, but it failed on all fronts, perhaps because the players to conductor were exhausted by the strenuous nature of the earlier pieces on the program and the added stress of the season’s opening night.
The main cause of the troubles was created by Harth-Bedoya’s sweeping gestures. While admittedly they were in the spirit of the music, they lacked the requisite ictus to generate precisely together entrances. This gave us a vague Monet-like Brahms rather than a crisply defined and more realistically painted one. Harth-Bedoya also conducted the hemiola sections, where the beat purposely grays the bar line, as though it was re-barred. This manner of conducting occasionally happens, but it fails to create the cross rhythms so endemic to the composer’s style.
The second movement mustered some energy for the blazing horn introduction, but the movement eventually lost energy as the nobility of Brahms’ horn call became shopworn by rote repetitions.
The third movement felt rushed.
The fourth movement got off to a rocky beginning when Harth-Bedoya delivered his decisive downbeat before the orchestra was completely prepared to start.
This movement is an undisputed masterpiece and a marvel of creating short variations over an eight-measure harmonic chaconne, borrowed from Bach, that are so cleverly grouped that the listener is not aware of the underlying form. This performance unfortunately tripped over the seam every eight measures, leaving the form bare and apparent for all to see — the exact opposite of the composer’s intentions.
It was a disappointing conclusion to a concert that was otherwise full of surprising delights.