The idea of people inspiring composers to write music for the orchestra is not a new concept. Beethoven originally wrote his Third Symphony as an homage to Napoleon; Elgar penned the Enigma Variations with a different person in mind for each section. Taking it a step further, it is equally as common for composers to be inspired by other musicians and write music based on that inspiration: Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn (although it turns out he wasn't exactly quoting Haydn) or Mendelssohn's quotation of Martin Luther in his Fifth Symphony.
That being said, it takes a moment of thought to process the idea of an orchestral work quoting music from a performer named Flea. The artist in question is the bass guitarist of funk-flavored rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it's from this group that composer-in-residence John B Hedges gains inspiration in his work Slapdance, premiered by the Fort Worth Symphony. The premiere was paired with two additional works: Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, which featured guest soloist Agustin Hadelich, and the orchestral warhorse of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, all conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
Slapdance is marked with fast, driving rhythms meant to imitate bass guitar slapping rhythms but bears little resemblance to the sound of a rock band, one of the points in which the work fell a little flat. The piece presented showed off Hedges' skill as an orchestrator excellently; aurally the piece was well-constructed, and really highlighted the strengths of the orchestra. That being said, there wasn't much depth to the work beyond the surface quotations and imitation of style. In the end, there wasn't a tune that could be taken away from Slapdance, merely an idea of texture. If the work is going to function as a nod to the rock genre, it needs to take the idea of said genre and carry a tune, original or not.
The second work of the evening featured one of the few compositions of French composer Edouard Lalo that has had any staying power in the repertoire despite not being as gargantuan or flashy as some of the other warhorses in the catalogue. Violinist Agustin Hadelich was very well at ease for his part, effortlessly navigating the complex runs and passages found within the work. Playing on a 1723 Stradivari ("Ex-Kiesewetter"), Hadelich played with a sweet tone, but occasionally dropped his volume to a point where it was a little difficult to hear him in balance with the orchestra proper—but these moments were few, and most of the performance was well in control. The orchestra served as an effective and sensitive soloist, never really overpowering Hadelich and matching his intensity note for note.
The main event of the night was the Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms. This is a work that is easily in the Top 10, if not Top 5 of most performed works in the orchestral repertoire. Overall, the orchestra equated itself well in the piece. Solos by clarinetist Ana Victoria Luperi were breathtaking in their tone and musicality; she has a sound that sweetens the woodwind section as a whole and elevates their playing.
Flutist Jan Crisanti also had her say in the final movement with a solo section that often winds up on the repertoire lists for most orchestral auditions. She played with a very light touch that offered up a soft contrast with the sections that surround the solo. Lastly, the trombone section must be mentioned as a whole; the work is scored for three trombones, but only uses them in the final movement of the work. The players sit there for a good 30 minutes before being expected to raise their instruments and not only play in the last movement but also work as the driving force of the music.
There were some drawbacks with the performance. The string sound was unusually amalgamated. It was often difficult to hear individual sections within the massed string sound, especially when Brahms would write for the section to become more prominent. The common culprit in this was often the second violins, but they cannot solely be blamed; one of the drawbacks of classical seating (a technique used by the symphony) is that they are sitting with the backs of their instruments facing the audience. In a larger hall such as Bass, this allows too much of the sound to escape upstage and lessens the strident tone they may be producing. Tempos were fine for the most part but greater care could have been taken to observe the minor fluctuations that Brahms wrote into the music. Without them, some of the musical peaks and valleys are smoothed over and the work loses some vibrancy.
A note on programming: as is becoming the custom, Friday night's performance was shortened and the intermission was removed. As a consequence only the first, second, and fifth movements of the Lalo were performed. The merits of shortened programs on Friday nights is a debate best not taken here, but whether or not they are acceptable aside, I would question the practice of only performing partial works especially when one is cutting from pieces with featured soloists.