Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is presenting a concert of music by two American composers, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Both composers swam against the riptide of modernism trying to establish a tonal alternative and suffered the slings and arrows of the compositional hierarchy for their efforts. Both eventually gave in but were able to tame the au courant compositional languages by incorporating elements of modernism into their unique voices.
This concert is also notable in that there's a guest conductor, Garrett Keast. While that fact alone isn't news, considering that the FWSO is searching to replace outgoing Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, we can assume that any guest conductor this season is "auditioning."
The program opened with Barber’s most well-known work, his Adagio for Strings. Actually, it is the slow movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, with a part for the basses created by the composer. This piece has entered into the common experience because of its use in many cinema soundtracks and whenever something unutterably sad is required. Examples range from funerals of the prominent, from Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco, to the radio announcements of the death of two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. However, this somber and slowly intense work is a strange piece to open a symphony concert without something to commemorate.
The other two works on the program bookended World War II and, as did the Adagio, offered differing paths towards revitalizing tonality as an alternative to serialism and rampant avant garde experimentation.
Barber’s Violin Concerto, the leading example of neo-romanticism, premiered in 1939. Copland’s Symphony No. 3, the prime example of his “Americana” style epitomized by his ballet Rodeo, premiered in 1946. Both works demonstrate the importance of commissioning composers to keep the repertoire refreshed with new works. Barber’s concerto was the result of a commission by a private individual and Copland’s symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The excellent violinist Liza Ferschtman replaced the previously scheduled Chloë Hanslip, due to the usual “unforeseen circumstances.” She delivered a fine performance displaying technical mastery. It was more muscular than romantically lush, but she made a good case for that approach. However, the last movement, a moto perpetuo, was much too fast, making some of wind passages sound trivial. However, this is a common error made by many soloists that want to give the concerto a more virtuosic display than the composer furnished.
She used the music, probably due to the short notice of her appearance. But, since she didn’t turn any pages, we can also assume that she used a computer tablet, which is the ultimate solution to all of the problems presented by printed on paper scores.
The three works on the program require a completely different musical approach and thus offer a golden opportunity for both the conductor and orchestra to demonstrate their versatility. Both Barber’s Adagio and his stunningly beautiful concerto needs to be approached with lush warmth and lavishly applied rubato. Copland’s angular, lean and rhythmically complex symphony requires clarity, precision and a close attention to nuance so its lyrical subtext is not submerged in an inexorable march of notes.
While the orchestra shone, guest conductor Keast did not. He approached all three similarly, with an over-attention to the accuracy of his beat but little attention to both nuance and the stylistic differences the two works present. This is odd for a conductor who spends so much time in opera, where creating the difference in the composer’s musical style is tantamount to success. In fact, for the 2005-2006 season, he was the Assistant Conductor for The Dallas Opera. Maybe his symphonic baton technique differs from what he uses in the opera pit.
On Friday evening, his motions were large and sweeping whether the music was loud or soft, fast or slow, intense or jolly. Copland’s symphony suffered the most from his uniform approach. This is a complex score with lots going on simultaneously. To get Copland’s desired effect, the conductor must carefully layer the dynamics. Keast’s failure to accomplish this task, along with his lack of nuance sensitivity and sparse attention to the symphony’s architecture, made the symphony little more than a progression of notes that led nowhere. He was better with Barber’s concerto, staying with the soloist, matching her approach, and only covered her in a few of the really big moments.
Perhaps his plodding approach to the symphony was a retreat to safety due to a lack of rehearsal and subsequent performances will include a more sensitive performance of Copland’s masterpiece.