The Fort Worth Symphony presented an oddly programmed concert on Friday. An overlong first half included Richard Strauss' Don Quixote and a shorter work, Mithra, by the Iranian-American composer Behzad Ranjbaran. The second half consisted of three Wagner overtures/preludes: Meistersinger, Lohengrin, and Rienzi. Moving Mithra to the second half instead of Rienzi would have helped.
Mithra is a Iranian god from the Zoroastrian Avesta scriptures. He is described as "Mithra of wide pastures, of the thousand ears, and of the myriad eyes" (Yasna 1:3), and "the lofty, and the everlasting...the province ruler" (Yasna 1:11). He is represented in this 15-minute, three-movement composition by a exotic flute solo which was stunning, and made even more so by the performance of principal flutist Jan Crisanti. While Ranjbaran's musical influences are a little too evident, this is an attractive piece. The last movement, representing love, was quite beautiful in its use of shifting and purely tonal chords, á la Alan Hovhaness' Mysterious Mountain Symphony or maybe Vaughn Williams in his nymphs and shepherds mode.
The 45-minute-long tone poem Don Quixote is rarely played these days. It is, indeed, a strange piece. The grandiose subtitle tells you all you need to know: Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character). Each of the variations recreates a scene from the Cervantes novel. A solo cello represents Don Quixote, and his erstwhile sidekick, Sancho Panza, is represented by a solo viola, assisted by a tenor tuba and bass clarinet.
The titles of the variations were printed in the program, but in the dark of Bass Performance Hall, it was impossible to follow along. Many of the variations are clever in depicting the episodes. For example, the second variation depicts Don Quixote doing battle with an approaching army that is really a herd of sheep; "The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron." The flutter-tongued tone clusters in the brass sound just like the bleating of the sheep. If you didn't know this was what was gong on, it would sound weird. If you did, it would make you smile, if not laugh out loud, in how much it sounds like the "baa" of the sheep. Some projected subtitles would have been very helpful, to say the least. Such equipment is readily available; the Fort Worth Opera uses it for every production.
The FWSO has a highly distinguished list of alumni that have gone on to major orchestras. The solo cellist for this performance is a case in point. Brinton Averil Smith, a former FWSO principal, is now with the Houston Symphony. His presence pointed up the fact that their current principal cellist, Karen Basrak, is listed in the program as "on leave," but the Chicago Symphony webpage lists her as having "…joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cello section in 2012."
On Friday, Smith played with great elegance and captured the changing emotions and situations of Cervantes' bizarre character. His sound is in the smaller side, but he clearly projected over the orchestra most of the time. Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. in his comments before the performance, made it clear that this was not a cello concerto and that Strauss didn't mean for you to hear the solo cello above the orchestra some of the time. This gave him the equivalent of a "get out of jail free" card, but, in general, he kept his tendency to overplay the big moments in check.
Principal violist Laura Bruton did a fine job as Sancho Panza. Her inherently quiet instrument always sounded out clearly and her sound—dark and lustrous—took on different characteristics as the piece progressed. Harth Bedoya introduced the tenor tuba and bass clarinet players, but too quickly to write it down. Who ever they were, they also gave a fine performance.
The big problem with Don Quixote is that the piece itself is not Strauss at his best. Here, like in Ein Heldenleben and the Alpine Symphony, he is overblown and pretentious. The solo cello is woefully underused. It is full of glorious music and magnificently orchestrated for an immense orchestra, but, up against one of his real masterpieces like Death and Transfiguration, it just goes on too long with too little material that catches your ear.
If Harth-Bedoya was at his best in the first half, Wagner's three overtures suffered from all of his faults. Lohengrin was the worst. He completely missed creating Wagner's musical picture of the parting of the clouds to allow a glimpse of the Holy Grail. Rienzi was too slow and trivialized to the point that it sounded like Carl Maria von Wagner. Meistersinger started out too loud, always a bad sign, requiring the crescendo to the end to blare, forsaking all sense of grandeur.