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Review: American Festival, Concert One | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

Very Big Deal in America

Bernstein's Second Symphony, performed by Fort Worth Symphony, makes a stellar start to the American Festival.

published Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Fort Worth Symphony opened its centennial celebration season on Friday evening. The performance also opened the three-concert American Festival—all music by American composers and running the gamut from traditional pops selections to esoteric and complex symphonic compositions. (FWSO did an American festival in 2011, too, but stuck to Bernstein, Gershwin and Copland.)

This range was apparent on Friday. The concert opened with Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal (Op. 5). That was followed by George Walker's Lyric for Strings and John Williams' Harry's Wondrous World, which is music cobbled together from the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The second half of the program presented Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, subtitled "The Age of Anxiety." 

It is hard to imagine a stranger juxtaposition than Harry Potter music and the fretful "The Age of Anxiety" symphony, unless it is Lady Gaga singing Tosca

The program opened with a projection of a slightly too long, but engaging, film tribute to the Fort Worth Symphony's 100 year history. Under this production, the symphony played some selections from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring ballet music with Music Director Miguel Harth Bedoya conducting. This was mostly effective and only occasionally too loud, which covered the narration. Where it struck an odd note was when the text discussed other music than Copland's ballet, but it brought the presentation to a thrilling conclusion. It is regrettable that the symphony didn't bring some of the key players prominently mentioned in the film, such as Mercedes Bass and former Music Director John Giordano, up on stage afterwards to share in the appreciative applause.

Musically, the program was a success. The orchestra played beautifully and pianist Leon McCawley turned in a terrific performance of Bernstein's hybrid score (part symphony and part piano concerto). A pre-performance lecture about the piece, delivered by pianist Shields-Collins Bray and Associate Conductor Andres Franco, would have been better if it was shorter and talked more about the music and the W. H. Auden poem on which the symphony is based rather than placing it in historical context. Harth-Bedoya does an excellent job with contemporary scores that require his full attention throughout. He was precise and in full command, even pacing his dynamics so that the big moments stood out, creating the exact effect the composer intended.

His performance of the Walker Lyric for Strings was very different, but just as effective. Here, he was liquid in his movements, which gave the piece a beautiful ebb and flow, even if it caused an occasional splatter on some pizzicato chords. The glockenspiel-heavy John Williams foray into film music could have easily been dropped. 

Speaking of conductors, Associate Conductor Andres Franco did a first-class job with Barber's overture. He has a firm grasp of baton technique and is able to be exact and expressive at the same time. He demonstrates good independence of his hands and is both in the moment and looking ahead. He had a concept of how he wants the music to go and communicates that to the orchestra without over conducting for even a moment.

However, the take-away impression of the concert was the stunning performance of Bernstein's rarely performed symphony. Even music lovers that go to concerts all of the time have rarely, if ever, heard a live performance of this work.

Here is the lineup for the Saturday and Sunday performances:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Conductor

Augustin Hadelich, Violin

HARRIS                         When Johnny Comes Marching Home

BARBER                         Violin Concerto

PHILIP GLASS                Symphony No. 3, third movement

GROFÉ                           On the Trail from Grand Canyon Suite

ELLINGTON                    Harlem


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Conductor

José Feghali, Piano

IVES arr. SCHUMAN       Variations on America

STILL                             Symphony No. 1, "Afro‐American"

GERSHWIN                    Piano Concerto in F Major

COPLAND                       Three Dance Episodes from Rodeo Thanks For Reading

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Very Big Deal in America
Bernstein's Second Symphony, performed by Fort Worth Symphony, makes a stellar start to the American Festival.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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