The Fort Worth Symphony does many praiseworthy things that greatly add to the cultural life of the Metroplex other than just play concerts. One thing that they do that other top-level performing arts organizations don't is sponsor a composer-in-residence program. They have brought in some big names as well as some that have gone on to greatness after leaving Fort Worth. Jennifer Higdon, for example, was already well known while she was here but her Pulitzer Prize came right afterwards. If every other group brought in composers, the DFW area would be world famous for new music. Alas, that is not the case.
Friday's concert at Bass Performance Hall opened with a piece, Slapdance, by last season's FWSO composer-in-residence, John B Hedges. This is a most attractive work that makes a perfect program opener. It pulses with life and energy. Hedges' background, which combines studies in classically-based composition with teachers such as Ned Rorem and Richard Danielpour at Curtis Institute of Music, with an equally distinguished history as a rock musician. In fact, Slapdance is based on the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and also influenced by his father.
"My father is a wonderful funk electric bass player," Hedges said in an interview some time ago.
That is quite different from the father of Alban Gerhardt, the cellist that shared the FWSO program playing Schumann's Cello Concerto on the concert with Slapdance. His father is a violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic. No funk there.
Hedges, raised in a rock environment, writes compositions that are all brash energy, combining elements of rock, big band and modern harmonic language into a musical stew all his own. Gerhardt, raised in a classical music world, is the picture of restrained elegance and technical perfection. They come from two opposite poles, yet are in the same musical generation. Gerhardt was born in 1969 and Hedges in 1974. It is this variety and combination of influences that surely marks the music of our time and it is very exciting.
Local audiences last heard Schumann's rarely played cello concerto just a few months ago when Yo-Yo Ma played it for the AT&T/Dallas Symphony gala. You can read our review here. Gerhardt delivered a more thoughtful and less emotional performance than Ma, who is often transported to some distant Elysian realm as he plays. Gerhardt, whose performance was just as moving in its own way, gently sways side to side, looking straight ahead with an impassive facial expression except in the most impassioned moments.
Gerhardt's performance on Friday was also noticeable for his attention to even the minutest detail of the score. When phrases were repeated, they were played very differently. Dynamics were carefully observed. Vibrato was used like a fine sauce – heavy at times for emotional impact and barely noticeably at others to cool things down. Intonation was spot on, even in the treacherous octave passages. The only quibble is that he didn't loosen up and enjoy himself in the last movement. The theme of the rondo is a happy one that dances through the entire range of the instrument.
In the second movement, Schumann writes a duet for the soloist and the principal cellist. This unusual bit of music is a lovely moment. Acting principal cellist Leda Dawn Larson seemed tentative, taking a secondary role as opposed to a full partner in the duet. While that is one way to look at it, hearing the passage with two more equal voices brings out the beauties of the harmonies better.
Barcelona-born guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech did a fantastic job conducting Slapdance. He easily negotiated all of the tricky time changes, kept the work light on its feet, and never let it overpower itself. He also did a fine job with the Schumann concerto. He was with Gerhardt at all times. More importantly, he kept the balance between orchestra and cellist at the proper level throughout. This is no mean accomplishment. Schumann writes a very think orchestration and balance in a performance of this piece is an infamous challenge. Caballé-Domenech's control over the orchestral forces allowed Gerhardt to play some passages incredibly softly and the effect was magical.
Caballé-Domenech did not do such a fine job with Rimsky-Korsakov's Technicolor orchestral showpiece and tone poem, Scheherazade, on Friday. While there was nothing really wrong with any one segment of this highly segmented piece, Caballé-Domenech was not able to stitch them together into a whole composition. Part of the problem was that he reached the loudest levels way too soon, so later big moments were just more of the same. He also didn't bring much variety of interpretation to Rimsky-Korsakov's admittedly quite repetitive tone poem. However, it was the fact that the seams of the music were so clearly on display that made the piece feel longer than it is and left the audiences wondering when to applaud. Still, it is an exciting never-fail piece and a favorite of audiences and players alike.
Speaking of the players, Scheherazade is a showpiece for the orchestra and once again, the FWSO proved that it is a fine symphony with world-class principal players. Since this work started out as a violin concerto and morphed into the tone poem we all know and love as Rimsky-Korsakov wrote it, the solo violin part is, perhaps, the most well known concertmaster solo in the repertoire. Michael Shih always impresses but he was really terrific on Friday. He played with alternating force and plaintiveness, bringing personality to the music.
Principal flute Jan Crisanti, principal clarinet Ana Victoria Luperi and principal bassoon Kevin Hall all gave excellent performances of their respective solo cadenzas. Principal oboe Jennifer Corning Lucio and whoever played the harp (uncredited in the program) were also outstanding. Horns and brass played with a rich well-balanced sound and the strings rose to the many challenges in the piece. Other than the fourth chord of the choral introduction, which always seems to be out of tune no matter which orchestra is playing it, intonation was also very good.