Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony trotted out a real warhorse to close the season. Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is much beloved by Cliburn contestants and audiences alike. They even pulled in a Cliburn medalist to play it: Barry Douglas, the charming Irish pianist who took the Bronze in 1985.
This season marked the 15th anniversary of the appointment of Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya and there was much to celebrate.
To start with, his FWSO is the only professional organization in the Metroplex to have a composer-in-residence. Even that bastion of new music, Voices of Change, doesn’t have one (but they do a lot of commissions instead). Commissions are critical, no doubt, but there is a benefit to having a composer spend some significant time with an orchestra, and more importantly, with the community.
So, it was appropriate for this concert to open with a score by Texas native composer Christopher Theofanidis. He also supplied the required new piece, a humorous romp for piano, for the recent Cliburn competition (although none of the contestants really “got it”).
In this concert it was his most performed score, 2003’s Rainbow Body, which is based on a chantlike song by Hildegard of Bingen. (Read our interview with Theofanidis here.) She was a medieval nun, mystic, scientist, feminist, writer, and also musician. Her music, as well as her work in holistic health and her visionary writings, was rediscovered in about 1980—and she hit it big, especially among the New Age crowd.
Theofanidis gave a fortunately not too long-winded and useful introduction to the piece before it was played. Of special interest was pointing out how he creates the effect of the echo in a large cathedral (by holding some of the notes in other instruments as they are released by others). It is a very exciting piece, laced with brilliant orchestral colors, and rises to appropriately ecstatic realms, taking us with it. The audience loved it.
The Rachmaninoff concerto hardly stood a chance after such a splashy piece of orchestral explosions. It sounded almost sedate with its turn-of-the-century brand of romanticism. Douglas’ star power offset his pedantically leaning, but accurate, approach to the piece. However, audiences raised on Lang Lang and his ilk are not used to a workmanlike performance.
Douglas sits very still at the keyboard, staring down at his hands. No ecstatic looks heavenward or arms flying about. As a result, the piece came across in its academic essence. While this may not seem like a positive comment, it is. Douglas played purely Rachmaninoff, without commenting on the piece or enhancing it with dramatics. The audience went crazy when it was over. Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra offered excellent support.
The highlight of the concert, as far as dramatics goes, was a suite from a film score by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. He wrote it for a movie made in 1939, titled La noche de las Mayas (The Night of the Mayas). The score strives to recreate the music of the Mayan people, of which little trace remains today. So, as a musical basis, he called on his Mexican heritage, along with some fragments of Mayan melodies, to create some very exciting music.
The percussion section really got a work out, including long sections by themselves. They also used instruments not usually found in the standard orchestra: bongos, congas, tom-toms, rattles, guiro (a gourd with ridges that is stroked), a conch shell (called a caracol) and a log drum called a tumkul, among others. The audience couldn’t see all of them, but the sound they made was unique.
The first movement was introductory and nicely set the stage. The wild second movement Noche de Jaranas (which Harth-Bedoya said was full of tequila) was filled with action. Dances of alternating 5/8 and 6/8 time signatures drove the hot-flashing rhythm. The third movement, Noche de Yucatán, slows things down and uses an actual Maya melody. In the final movement, Noche de Encantamiento (Night of Enchantment), time signatures continued to shift and the percussion section really build up a head of steam.
The entire piece was challenging for the orchestra but they gave it an exciting performance. Many of the players were visibly doing some serious counting, but these rhythms are in Harth-Bedoya’s DNA. It is an excellent showpiece for both conductor and orchestra.