The Fort Worth Symphony presented guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen in an all-Tchaikovsky program, which opened with his Romeo and Juliet Overture and ended with his haunting Symphony No. 6, The Pathetique. Future concerts will also present the composer’s Tempest Symphonic Fantasia after Shakespeare, but since opening night was "Casual Fridays," this lesser known work was eliminated at the performance reviewed.
The orchestra played beautifully. Much of the minor, but distracting, intonation and ensemble troubles that were evident earlier in the season concerts have worked themselves out. There were lovely solos from the winds, especially the clarinet in the first movement of the symphony. The brass also had a good night, with nary a bobble (well, maybe one). In short, the Fort Worth Symphony sounded like a first-class orchestra, and this bodes well for the reminder of the season.
This brings us to the guest conductor.
From The Star-Spangled Banner to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, Ms. Chen gave the terms over-the-top and over-conducted a new standard. While she was somewhat more controlled in the symphony than in the overture, it was still a jaw-dropping display.
It wasn’t that she lacked ideas about the piece. On the contrary, she had an idea about every single note and if we didn’t hear it, we certainly saw it in her gestures. It wasn’t that she didn’t know the score. She conducted from memory and every entrance was given in a pre-conceived and highly planned manner. Even a series of trills were conducted—each and every one of them. It wasn’t that the orchestra didn’t play for her. They certainly did, and in spades. It was just so very big that it was distracting, even comical from time to time. This inevitably led to some exaggerated playing; the loud parts were probably heard in Richland Hills.
Mostly, she understood and conveyed the essence of the music. Things only really fell apart in the finale of the symphony. This heartbreaking descent into abject misery was just another symphonic movement. Her ecstatic smile showed that she was in heaven conducting this music, but the composer was in hell when he wrote it.
In days of yore, opera was the path to the symphony podium. Now, the path is a doctorate in conducting from a major university, a summer or two at a festival, and placing in a competition. A few years in the opera pit would, hopefully, teach her (and others) how to express good ideas in a less expansive way. Unfortunately, regional opera companies where she could gain this vital experience have been allowed to whither and die, and worse, go mostly unmourned. Ms. Chen, and a slew of others, is the result.
She gave some unnecessary comments before the symphony that will probably not be repeated when the concert is not "casual," but the fact that the composer wrote the Pathetique “before his death” was comforting to learn this close to Halloween, when channeling would have been the only alternative.