Fort Worth — It seems odd to already have a candidate for the Top Ten Concerts of 2015 list just a few days into the New Year, but the Fort Worth Symphony’s concert at Bass Performance Hall on Friday evening has to be a contender. Top billing on the program: the North Texas premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto. In keeping with the percussion nature of the Higdon, the program opened with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. For the second half, FWSO gave a definitive reading of Rachmaninoff’s lush and expansive Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27.
The plethora of percussion instruments that soloist Colin Currie needed to play Higdon’s fascinating concerto were arrayed in front of the orchestra as we arrived. On one side was a collection of unpitched, or barely pitched, instruments such as various drums, temple blocks, wood blocks, cymbals, castanets and a standard trap set. On the other side: a beautiful five-octave marimba and a vibraphone. Currie, for whom the concerto was written, dashed back and forth for the entire piece to capture Higdon’s amazing variety of sounds and rhythms.
The percussion section of the orchestra was an equal partner with Currie and had basically the same array plus some others, such as the timpani. They joined together throughout the piece, greatly expanding the already expansive solo part. Occasionally, the orchestral battery covered Currie’s trot from one side to the other, keeping the sound going until he arrived.
Higdon’s Concerto makes wondrous use of percussion in all its wide spectrum of sounds. Soft tremolos of jazz inspire complex chords on the marimba and let harmonies float out into the hall. One section uses a dazzling collection of instruments, different on every beat of the passage, to create a collection of clicks and clacks. Solo passages on the drums were reminiscent of the cadenzas of big band jazz (such as Tony Williams) and rock drummers (such as Keith Moon). Sticks flew over the assortment of snares, tom-toms and suspended cymbals while his left foot pounded on a pedal-played bass drum.
Higdon’s musical language in this piece is basically tonal but in the way jazz musicians expanded that concept (more about her style at the end of this review). Intervals are piled on top of the humble triad to create complex chords without changing its basic nature. Melodic motifs and easily recognizable interval patterns repeat, sometimes literally and other times metamorphosed to give the one-movement piece unity. It is sometimes static while at other times wild flights of virtuosity on the vibraphone run up and down at a breakneck speed.
A sweat-drenched Currie acknowledged the audience’s spontaneous ovation at the end. We would have loved a short encore, but alas, one was not forthcoming.
At the opening, Copland’s Fanfare received a well-shaped performance. Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya resisted the common practice of playing this at a top blast from beginning to end. The timpani still thundered, but the brass started with a full sound but slowly built to the gleaming final chords.
The Rachmaninoff symphony received a similarly intelligent and insightful performance.
Moment of Geek: This symphony is as carefully planned as any of the symphonies of Brahms and borrows his four-movement structure. Within those movements, Rachmaninoff hews close to the standard forms and his development sections are a marvel to behold. The unifying opening motives echo through the nearly an hour of music. The composer was working as a conductor at the time (1906) and, like Mahler, put his detailed knowledge of how the orchestra worked to good use. All this background is useful in assessing the performance on Friday evening.
Harth-Bedoya has transformed, as in matured, his podium technique before the beginning of last season. Gone are all the histrionics, superficial readings and overplayed climaxes. His performance of the Rachmaninoff symphony has to be the apotheosis of his remarkable transformation. His conducting frame (as far as the arms can reach in any direction) remained modest and mostly in front of his body. Thus, when a larger gesture was used, but nothing like his previous arm waving, its dramatic impact was huge. His gestures for some big moments to let the sound unfold, filling Bass Hall rather than clobbering it.
Most importantly, he let his orchestra play the music as he shaped the piece. He was collegial rather than dictatorial and, in return, the players gave him their best, maybe even exceeded themselves. One example of his approach was the beautiful clarinet solo that opens the slow movement. Ana Victoria Luperi gave it a superlative reading. The wandering melody keeps hunting for a place to rest, which it finally finds after many near misses. Harth-Bedoya became an accompanist, letting her play it without his interference and only taking back the reins when she brought it to a hushed finish.
If there is a small quibble, it is that Harth-Bedoya didn’t bring a little something new to all of the repeats. As is the common practice, he (thankfully) eschewed repeating the exposition of the first movement, but Rachmaninoff repeats many sections literally, and not just in the Scherzo, where that is traditional. Bringing a new thought to each restatement keeps the very long piece fresh. Repeated the same way every time, the sections take on a “we already heard that” aspect that makes it feel longer than it already is.
When the performance was over, everyone in Bass Hall (audience and players alike) knew something special had been heard; a moment when everything aligned. Rather than a schmaltzy warhorse, Harth-Bedoya’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s symphony revealed it, deservedly, as a chef-d'oeuvre that can take it place with any of the symphonic masterpieces of the era.
Back to Higdon: Frequently, her music brings the music of Baroque master Antonio Vivaldi to mind. (You may know his four-violin concerto cycle The Seasons). Like the Baroque master, Higdon’s music brims over with energy, constant movement and inner rhythm. She contrasts with lyrical beauty and pools of harmony; complexity with simplicity.
Like Vivaldi, Higdon takes what is in the musical ether and combines it into something completely new. She absorbed the complexity of her musical heritage of 20th century composers—from all spectrums. She mines early Stravinsky orchestrations, modernist dissonance from composers such as George Crumb, octatonic and other nontraditional scales from the likes of Bartók. To this mix, she adds walls of tone-clustered sounds to pointalistic disbursements. The Zen of the repetitive minimalists and an overlay from the neo-romantic traditionalists. From the musical world in which she grew up, she seasons all of this with the hot sauce of rock, folk and jazz.
As in any fine braise, the combination of ingredients lose their individuality and meld into something completely new.
She takes on composer-in-residence positions, presumably to get herself out of the ivory tower every now and then, including one with the Fort Worth Symphony. Like Vivaldi, she spends an equal amount of her time as an educator, teaching at prestigious music schools. She has a wall full of awards.
All this has brought her to the attention of the general public—a rare accomplishment for a composer. Her evocative and atmospheric orchestral piece, Blue Mountain, is one of the most performed pieces by a living composer with almost 500 outings. She is also one of the few composers in the enviable position of having a backlog of commissions far into the foreseeable future.
This summer, her first opera will premiere in Santa Fe and is eagerly anticipated. It is based on the Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel Cold Mountain, on a libretto by Gene Scheer, who is best known locally for his libretto to Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, which was commissioned by The Dallas Opera and became an international sensation.