Fort Worth — The opening classical concert of the Fort Worth Symphony’s season on Sept. 18 was a moto perpetuo concert. Between the lickety-split programming and guest conductor Patrick Summers’ brisk tempi, we were treated to a cascade of fast notes for 90 minutes. It was all very exciting, but a bit exhausting by the end.
The concert was not in the usual venue of Bass Performance Hall, which is closed at least through the end of 2020. Instead it was in Will Rogers Auditorium, a general-purpose hall that was not designed specifically for a symphony orchestra (or not even like Bass, which is designed for opera, Broadway tours, and music with the orchestra shell). The FWSO did the best they could to create a makeshift and suitable venue. The back curtain was raised to expose the brick wall behind it. This would be more reflective of the sound than the deadening effect of the massive curtain.
The orchestra was about half of its usual size and appropriately spaced. The strings all wore masks. A wall of acrylic panels separated the winds from the strings and every player had their own microphone. So, it is relatively safe to assume that the music was subtlety amplified, although it was not all that noticeable in the audience. Whoever was in charge of that maze of mics did a magnificent job of managing them. The small audience was scattered around the seating area — Will Rogers has about 800 more seats than Bass Hall.
We got a taste of guest conductor Summers’ energetic manner of conducting the National Anthem that opens every FWSO concert. His tempo and no-nonsense approach made for a fresh experience and the audience gustily sang along.
Summers was just as lively when he started Rossini’s charming warhorse and perennial favorite, the overture to Rossini’s laugh-laden opera The Barber of Seville. It is full of slow starts and smooth accelerandi to a climax — over and over again. This is a perfect piece for Summers’ skills of relentlessly driving the music to its logical conclusion.
Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 followed with the Canadian concert pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear. He is best known for playing the entire canon of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a day-long marathon. Listening to his performance, it was no surprise to discover that he was a student of Glen Gould, whose steely fingers and precise way of playing was evident throughout Goodyear’s performance.
Minimal use of the sustaining pedal created a sparklingly clear performance with every note an island. His technical abilities appear to be limitless and all of the scales, which permeate the work, were a miracle of nimble fingers, speed and crystalline playing. Missing was a dash of French Romanticism that cumulated in Saint-Saens’ works.
The opening was faster than the marked andante sostenuto. In fact, the romantic theme, borrowed from his pupil Gabriel Fauré, was not properly lingered over as if he couldn’t wait to get to the technical fireworks. His technical brilliance and clarity of touch, required by this concerto, was certainly impressive. The pianist plays almost continuously throughout, but Goodyear didn’t appear to tire one bit.
Goodyear’s concept of tempi worked just fine in the scherzo, marked leggieramente, and the final presto, a(very fast Italian folk dance), was a fireworks show of notes and G-minor arpeggios. The audience gave him a huge ovation when it ended. However, it was a different piece than we are used to hearing. Thanks to Summers, the orchestra kept up.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, in the bright key of A major, known as the “Italian,” ended the 90-minute, intermissionless concert. As a composer, Mendelssohn was a strict traditionalist as opposed to his daredevil contemporaries like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. His studies with, a former student of , gave his music a heavy flavor of J. S. Bach.
Mendelssohn’s music is often a run-on sentence and so it is with this symphony, especially in the hands of Summers. His tempi throughout were quite fast.
The first movement, marked vivace, was almost as fast as the last movement, marked presto. The winds got the first challenge, with their fast and tongued 16th note chordal accompaniment to the bouncing theme, which needed a little more room to bounce.
The second movement gave us a respite. Summers gave it all the space it needs to sing its solemn song and the viola section was absolutely terrific. The third movement is a minuet, which was already out of style when this piece premiered. The horn section got their chance the shine in the trio and did a nice job of it. The last movement is a , a frantic and fast folk dance of ancient origins (it was thought that the bite of the tarantula caused such a frenzy). Speed is required in this movement and Summers took that advice to heart. It was very fast indeed. Kudos to all of the players, especially the strings, for keeping up.
Summers is best known for his work as artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, which he raised to international standards, and a stint as principal guest conductor with the San Francisco Opera. He nabbed a degree from Indiana University, famous for its opera program, and was in the 's as an apprentice coach in the late 1980s.
A guest appearance at the Metropolitan Opera launched him to the top of the list of superstar opera conductors around the world. His fach may be opera, but he is equally at home on the symphonic podium, as he ably demonstrated on Sept. 18. Most importantly, he is an avid promoter of living composers.
Summers is a refreshing conductor. He is a bit wild with his gestures, but he is always enveloped in the music. He is excessive, effusive, energetic and effective. He eschews classic podium technique for his own way of communicating with his baton, but he is in complete control of every note. He knows exactly what he wants to do with it. Thus, he creates the whole work organically: We start here, take a musical journey, and we end here.
Most importantly, it works splendidly. The reduced orchestra responded to his every move and gesture. He was right with pianist Goodyear — no easy job in his flashy dash through Saint-Seans’ finger-busting second piano concerto — all the way.
Perhaps we can hope for him to take on the currently vacant musical directorship of FWSO.