Who was Yma Sumac and what did she have to do with the clarinet?
This question was resoundingly answered on Friday evening at Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall when the Fort Worth Symphony's composer in residence, John B Hedges, forever joined the two into one with his new composition: Fantasía sobre Yma Sumac for Clarinet and Orchestra.
Sumac was an exotic Peruvian singer who was able to sing notes so high that dogs in the area covered their ears, and then descend into the depths of a basso profundo. She also sang a range of styles from opera to Incan folk music and lounge songs. She claimed to be a princess directly descended from Atahualpa, the last ruler of the Incan empire before the inconvenient arrival of Pizarro and the Spanish army. She even played an Incan princess in the movies, most notably the 1954 Secret of the Incas. Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya played a short selection of Sumac singing before the piece was performed, because her voice and style are difficult to describe with mere words.
Hedges' piece, really a clarinet concerto, pays tribute to Sumac in all of her various aspects. Fort Worth Symphony Principal Clarinetist, Ana Victoria Luperi, took on the persona of Sumac and gave a dazzling performance right from the moment she walked on stage. She was wearing an eye-popping gown, a tribute to the lounge singer part of Sumac's résumé, that was inspired by the brightly colored fabrics associated with South America. It was tightly fitted except for a pleated kick skirt that started at the knees, and it was gorgeous. Such a contrast to the all-in-black attired orchestra!
The music was also highly colored. Hedges makes amazing demands on the clarinetist and Luperi turned in a stunning performance. All of Sumac's unique abilities were on display; great leaps, wide ranges, operatic and lounge styles, folk tunes, virtuosic riffs and even Latin-flavored dance. Her weird vocal effects were matched by flutter-tonguing and over-blowing the clarinet. The FWSO was also challenged by Hedges' music and they played the vibrant and fragmented score with energy and accuracy. All in all, it was a marvelous piece, thrillingly performed, that brought a rousing response from the audience.
Clarinetists are desperately in need of new concerti. Other than the one by Mozart (that Gregory Raden played so beautifully with the Dallas Symphony last week), you'd be hard pressed to come up with many more. Hedges has done the instrument a great service by writing this piece. It is modern and up-to-date without assaulting the audience. It has a fusion of classical, folk and pop elements that are both intellectually challenging and crowd-pleasing at the same time. It should be welcomed into the repertoire with a ticker-tape parade.
Also on the program are two works from opposite ends of the Russian school. Borodin's Symphony No. 2 in B minor and an extensive suite from Prokofiev's ballet, Cinderella. On Friday, the FWSO only played two of the fast movements from the Borodin, but they will perform the entire work for the rest of the run.
Borodin's symphony is a rarity, but deserves to be heard more often. Harth-Bedoya made a convincing case for the piece and I regretted not hearing all of it.
Prokofiev's ballet score is not the masterpiece that his Romeo and Juliet is, but it is still vintage Prokofiev and has many wonderful moments. In both of these selections, Harth-Bedoya was in top form. He was in complete control of himself, the orchestra and the music. None of the grandstanding that can mar his performance was on display. When he concentrates and conducts the orchestra instead of the audience, he shows the great ability and natural musicianship that he has in abundance.
It would have helped the audience follow along in the ballet if they had projected supertitles giving out the scenes of the ballet. They are listed in the program, but it was dark and the type is small. Playing a ballet score is a perfect opportunity to add some multi-media enhancement to the symphony experience.