Denton — If Roberto Abbado is truly being considered as a contender for the FWSO’s music director post, based on Friday night’s performance, the orchestra and its listeners would be lucky to have him. I’ve seldom, if ever, heard the orchestra sound better.
A bit of background: The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is performing a series of three concerts this season at the Murchison Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton. These concerts all feature programs of major significance and guest conductors, so the working assumption is that these are essentially auditions for music director candidates to replace Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who will depart at the end of this season. Friday’s performance, under conductor Abbado, was the second of these three. I reviewed the first, with conductor Rune Bergmann, here. The third will be on March 27, with Henrik Nánási conducting.
There is perhaps a question about whether Abbado is actually a candidate for the music director post, however, since he was a replacement for another conductor. A few hints, though, including some high-profile audience members Friday night, suggest that he might indeed be in the running.
I sure hope he is. He was a magician with this orchestra — had he brandished a top hat, tapped it with his baton, and produced a rabbit, I could not have been more delighted. His podium style is efficient, controlled, emotive without being distracting or excessively flamboyant, and it got results.
In an ambitious program of Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919 version), and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major, the orchestra shone. The first half, the Verdi and Stravinsky, featured consistently clean playing with exceptionally tight ensemble. Flawlessly synchronized entrances and cutoffs have sometimes been elusive for this orchestra in the past, but you wouldn’t have known that Friday night.
Brass and strings, particularly, were precise, elegant, and in the case of the brass, loud without sacrificing tone quality in the Verdi. In the Stravinsky, my goodness. The level of nuance was extraordinary. Yes, when appropriate, Abbado went for straight up drama — the beginning of the third movement, the Infernal Dance of King Katschei, begins with every instrument in the orchestra, including tympani and bass drum, playing the downbeat triple forte, and the FWSO delivered, with a huge, startling detonation. (My companion nearly leapt from her seat, though she didn’t scream like this person did at another performance.) But part of the reason that the beginning of the Infernal Dance was so satisfying was the contrast with the previous movement, the Dance of the Princesses. It ends with the gentlest pianissimo, and Abbado coaxed elegant, gentle playing from the FWSO here, with an especially gorgeous oboe solo by Jennifer Corning Lucio. In the fourth movement Berceuse, bassoonist Kevin Hall delivered the famous bassoon solo with polish and finesse, showing that he still brings high-quality playing to the orchestra in his final season before his retirement.
The second half of the program was the Mahler, a subtler work than fans of his first three symphonies might expect. While this was not a perfect performance — the orchestra sometimes seemed to be getting tired, with wobblier pitch and less precise entrances than they offered in the first half — it was nevertheless a deeply satisfying one. The first movement’s melody shared by violas and cellos was a wonder, and reflected excellent string playing generally, with only occasional issues. Winds and brass were generally strong, with fine solo turns by Principal Horn Nikolette LaBonte, Principal Trumpet Kyle Sherman, Principal Clarinet Stanislav Chernyshev, and Principal Flute Gabe Fridkis.
This symphony has a couple of unusual features. One is the scordatura (altered tuning) concertmaster solo in the second movement that requires the performer to use two instruments, one tuned normally, G-D-A-E, and one tuned a full step up, A-E-B-F#. Here's an informative article by a violinist who has performed this solo. It’s not tremendously difficult, compared to other well-known concertmaster solos, but the altered tuning requires some accommodation, not to mention the fear factor of tuning that E string, the highest, smallest gauge one, up a full step. Concertmaster Michael Shih switched nimbly from one violin to the other, with near-flawless intonation on both — no small feat. He channeled the folksy, “fiddle-style” character that Mahler asks for in the scordatura part, too.
Another distinctive feature of the fourth symphony is the soprano soloist who appears only for the fourth (and last) movement. In Mahler’s second and third symphonies, he had also employed soloists and a chorus in the final movements. Here, though, a single singer is in the spotlight to perform a lied, “Das himmlische Leben,” about the wonders of heavenly life, especially the excellent food to be found there, though the bit about Herod the butcher slaughtering the innocent lamb is rather grim. Soloist Laura Claycomb, with a rich, brilliant, and full soprano, was a nearly ideal fit here.
As the final notes of the last movement sounded, Abbado kept his arms lifted for what seemed like a minute, successfully holding the audience back from applauding and allowing us to appreciate the contemplative quiet, closing the concert with so much promise for the possible future of this orchestra, and bringing to mind Wallace Stevens’ observation from his poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: “I do not know which to prefer,/ The beauty of inflections/ Or the beauty of innuendoes,/ The blackbird whistling/ Or just after.”
With this conductor, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra gave us both.
CORRECTION: The original review misidentified the Principal Horn player. That position is filled by Nikolette LaBonte.