The Fort Worth Symphony brought its festival of American music to a close on Sunday at Bass Hall. It was just in the nick of time since the orchestra sounded noticeably worn out. Little wonder. They have played three concerts of difficult and challenging music. There was a special challenge to the brass players. The jazz-infused repertoire put them in the all-out high-range for three concerts. Still, the orchestra rose to the occasion and the brass deserves a purple heart.
The concerts were exclusively dedicated to the music of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Lenard Bernstein. While not necessarily representative of all that has gone on in American music since the 1920s, the three superstars are probably the only American composers that the average concertgoer can name.
Pardon me while I step up on the soap box for a second. The FWSO, which is usually at the leading edge with its composer-in-residence program (John B Hedges has that honor for this coming season), missed a bit by not including some other Americans of less renown. Ned Rorem, a fine American composer (who is still alive) once quipped that a big-name (but slightly faded) violinist made more in a single concert than he did in a year. We simply do not adequately appreciate our living native composers and American-centered music festivals don't help one bit by playing only the dead.
However, this particular festival did bring one thing into sharp focus: Gershwin was the source of the entire movement away from the European influence that dominated American music until he came on the scene. This programming juxtaposition allowed you to hear his influence in both Copland and Bernstein. However, he is mostly uncredited with his far-reaching influence. In fact, Rhapsody in Blue, which was on the first half of the program, was the seminal composition in this movement among American composers to develop a native compositional language, from which sprang the likes of Copland and Bernstein.
Even Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya seemed to share this dismissive attitude when he gave the introduction to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. He said that "perhaps the concert hall is not the right place for a performance of this piece." That's an interesting statement considering that the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue was at the venerable Aeolian Hall in New York City. That concert hall was one of the most distinguished in America. Even great European composers, such as Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, had played there.
The main work on the program, Copland's Symphony No. 3, was overplayed from start to finish. Too many passages were performed at such a full-out blast, that when a thrilling crescendo was needed to raise the goose bumps, our auditory senses were already numbed.
Bernstein's "Three Dance Episodes from On the Town," which opened the concert, was probably the highlight. Coming in as a runner-up was Copland's suite form his opera, The Tender Land. This beautiful work was sensitively and correctly played as one big crescendo. The performance of The Tender Land excerpt was enhanced by a slide show of Walken Evans' heartbreaking Depression-era photographs of suffering farmers.
Shields-Collin Bray, a terrific pianist, brought an improvisatory nature to the aforementioned Rhapsody in Blue. Since Harth-Bedoya decided to use the original jazz band version, and since Gershwin didn't write out the piano part but made it up as he went along, Bray's loose and "on-the-fly" interpretation was effective and involving. Unfortunately, in the big moments, he was completely covered by the small ensemble. However, the solo passages were uniquely conceived and fascinating to hear.
He played a wonderful improvisation of Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" as an encore.