Fort Worth — The March of the Conductors continues apace as the Fort Worth Symphony season progresses and they search for a replacement for outgoing Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. On Friday night, it was the Viennese maestro Christian Arming in the spotlight conducting Brahms’ sly Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80, and Dvořák’s glorious Symphony No. 7, Op. 70. He was joined by the French pianist Lise de la Salle for Mozart’s elegant Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466.
Arming was disappointing in spite of the superb program. He delivered sagging and somnambulistic performances of all three works. Occasionally, especially in the exciting big moments, he would wake up and the performance livened considerably, but these moments only pointed out the overall lack of energy elsewhere.
At least from my vantage point, his baton technique appeared to be a series of mirrored upbeats, no matter what the time signature or tempo. Under the circumstances, the Fort Worth Symphony did an admirable job of keeping the music vibrant and alive as best they could.
This problem was noticeable right from the beginning of the concert with his flat reading of Brahms’ jolly Academic Festival Overture. Brahms wrote this piece in 1880 as a “thank you” to the University of Breslau for awarding him an honorary doctorate. When they had the nerve to ask for a new symphony as a quid pro quo, he responded with a musical raspberry. In a letter to Max Kalbeck, he described the overture as a “…very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé." At the premiere, with Brahms conducting, the work had its desired effect. The august faculty gathered for the occasion was scandalized and the students were delighted.
Arming must have missed the “boisterous” part of the composer’s description. Perhaps he confused the style of this piece with the composer’s more serious Tragic Overture.
Dvořák’s seventh symphony, originally published as his second, stands as one of the masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire. He saw it as a vehicle for expressing two conflicting desires. One was his love of the tranquility of Czech country life and folk music and the other was his passionate drive to see it become a major nation on the world stage. None of this backstory came through under Arming’s baton.
The highlight of the concert was Lise de la Salle’s marvelously colored performance of Mozart’s concerto. Since the first surviving pianos with a sustaining pedal date from two years after Mozart wrote this concerto (1787), we can assume that he didn’t have the advantage to remove the dampers from the strings, as that way was not available to him. Thus, because of de la Salle’s mastery of finger legato and her minimal use of this pedal, she delivered a crisp and clean reading that was close to what would have been heard at the premiere in 1785.
However, she also realized that Mozart would have loved the sustaining effect and she found some opportunities to use it. In fact, in the first movement, she played one of the fast-upward chromatic runs with the pedal depressed the whole way and let it ring. Mozart would have loved it.
An aside: In addition to the historical record, we know for sure that Mozart’s piano lacked the sustaining pedal. Instead, it had a pitched pedalboard like the organ. It is in a museum in Berlin if you want to check it out.
Back in Beethoven’s days as a concertizing pianist, this concerto was part of his repertoire. De la Salle honored this connection by playing Beethoven’s cadenzi for both the first and last movement. It appeared that the end of the cadenza in the last movement caught Arming by surprise since he didn’t bring in the orchestra promptly.