Fort Worth — The audience barely had time to be seated at the close of The Star-Spangled Banner at Bass Performance Hall Friday night before the Fort Worth Symphony and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya rushed head-long into the rollicking roller-coaster ride of Bernstein’s Slava: A Political Overture. Ragtime, vaudeville, Broadway, Shostakovich, and Mussorgsky collide boisterously but pleasantly here in this four-minute work written as a tribute to Bernstein’s friend, cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich (“Slava” to his friends); the orchestra gets to shout “Pooks” (the name of Rostropovich’s beloved dog) and “Slava” as part of the score, which also calls for pre-recorded mock political oratory.
Hardly a masterpiece in its own right, Slava nonetheless served well to raise the curtain on the FWSO’s three-day, three-concert festival of Bernstein’s music, marking that composer’s centennial. The orchestra played noisily as the score demands, without surrendering accuracy and quality.
A very different side of Bernstein took the stage next in the form of the composer’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” a lofty and ambitious work written in 1942, when the 24-year-old composer was rapidly emerging as a classical music superstar. The broad, neo-romantic score, inspired by ancient Hebrew texts (Old Testament to Christians, Tanakh to Jews) describing the degradation and fall of Jerusalem, challenges the listener with layers of philosophical possibilities while seducing with gorgeously conceived musical ideas. The orchestra’s string section showed off a particularly rich sound in the main theme of the first movement, “Prophecy,” wherein a somber chorale-like passage is repeatedly interrupted by quick, violent exclamations from the brass and percussion.
In the second movement, “Profanation,” Bernstein offers the most thought-provoking moment of the work with a beautifully lyrical theme rising from the busy noise of a decadent society—creating an emotional enigma. The final movement, “Lamentation,” featured in this performance mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, whose hypnotically beautiful tone and chillingly mournful delivery crowned a remarkable performance by soloist, orchestra, and conductor of a remarkable work. While the “Jeremiah” symphony is definitely part of the canon of American orchestral music, it remains something of a rarity in live performance, and, as this performance proved, should be heard more often.
The concert, performed without intermission, closed with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, a distillation of Bernstein’s most famous and beloved Broadway musical—arguably the greatest of all Broadway shows. Rather than lingering on the obvious hits from that musical, or painting the plotline, the Symphonic Dances captures the essence of West Side Story—of modern urban America on the verge, in the late 1950s, of the social revolution and cultural clashes of the 1960s, still echoing in 2018. The juxtaposition, on this concert, of the evocative Jeremiah Symphony and the volcanic energy of West Side Story served to remind, on the centennial of his birth, of the breadth and power of America’s greatest musical genius.
For encore, the orchestra and conductor Harth-Bedoya repeated the Slava Overture, with the musicians shouting “Lenny” at the end instead of “Slava.”
» Read our appreciation of Bernstein and a look at some of the DFW concerts planned in the centenary celebration; and read our interview with mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor here. Look for reviews of Saturday and Sunday's concerts on TheaterJones.
» The Lenny at 100: Bernstein Centennial Festival continues Saturday and Sunday:
- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25 Jazz, Film, and Broadway music are the focus of the second festival concert. Experience music from On the Town and On the Waterfront. Plus celebrated clarinetist David Shifrin will perform the jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and lyrical Sonata for Clarinet and Orchestra.
- 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26 The festival concludes with an afternoon of vocal music. Enjoy selections from Candide, Trouble in Tahiti, Arias and Barcarolles, and more with vocalists Kelley O’Connor and Michael Adams. Plus, the FWSO is joined by a chorus for a performance of the hopeful and life-affirming, jazzy and contemporary Chichester Psalms.