Celebrating a century of music is cause for celebration. The stark reality of the state of orchestral music in the United States is that ensembles are at risk of going defunct; labor strife between players and management results in lockouts and walkouts—Detroit and Atlanta were fortunate to end their labor issues before losing their entire season. Others, such as the Minnesota Orchestra and the Louisville Symphony, appear to be in danger of ceasing to exist completely. So, when an ensemble reaches the century mark—we should all stand and cheer.
Such a cheer was heard in Fort Worth on Saturday night at the Bass Performance Hall as the Fort Worth Symphony presented their Centennial Gala with a celebration of two historic instruments that are of use in the orchestra: the pair of Stradivarius violins currently on loan to the ensemble.
The concert opened with a pair of instrumental works by Pablo Sarasate that featured each of the instruments in turn. First was the composer's Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen, Op. 25 featuring Associate Concertmaster Swang Lin and the 1685 "Eugenie" (ex-"Mackenzie") Stradivarius. The work is a medley of sorts from the opera, with the violin soloist playing greatly embellished tunes from the work. Lin is a consistently strong performer, although there were a few times where he was fighting against the instrument to produce sound – it was most noticeable in the extended harmonic sections; though to be honest, it's more proof that any instrument is fickle when conditions aren't perfect. Changes in temperature and humidity have an effect, but Lin handled the rest of the work with virtuosity, taking charge of the music and making it his own.
The second Sarasate work was the famous Zigeunerweisen or "Gypsy Airs," Op. 20, performed by Concertmaster Michael Shih on the 1710 "Davis" Stradivarius. From the moment he took the stage, Shih was in complete control, demanding the full attention of the other performers and the audience. He expertly navigated the music with an effortless performance that belied the complexity of the work.
For the third work, Shin and Lin joined forces for Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043. Both performers equated themselves well and were superbly backed up by the rest of the Fort Worth Symphony strings. In general, the Fort Worth Symphony proved themselves as capable accompanists for all three works; the balance between soloist and orchestra was delicately handled to the benefit of both sides. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya was exceptional in his leadership of the concerti, eschewing grand gestures for small, concentrated movements that complemented and reinforced the music being performed. The orchestra responded to his leadership and the end result was three strong solo works with orchestra.
The final work on the concert was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in C Minor, Op. 67. This symphony, possibly the most well-known work in the orchestral repertoire, is often viewed as a litmus test for performers and conductors. Many instrumental auditions require excerpts from the piece and it is a rare conductor's audition that does not include a portion of the work. Simply put, as an orchestral performer, one must know this symphony.
The Fort Worth Symphony's performance of the work was a smashing success. Harth-Bedoya led the orchestra in a brisk and spirited performance of the piece. The balance between sections was perfect. The strings equated themselves especially well, taking the part of the hammering blows of the first movement as easily as the joyous celebration of the final movement. Special note has to be mentioned for the trombone section of the orchestra, who sit there for three movements before having to come in with the rousing brass statement the opens the last section; in this case, it was even longer – the Bach concerto is for strings only, and since there was no intermission, the low brass sat idle between the end of the Sarasate and the last movement of the Beethoven.
After a century of performance, the Fort Worth Symphony finds itself as a strong ensemble with a commitment to the classics as well as a vested interest in the music of new and living composers. Other organizations should take note of the success of this orchestra; in the meantime, we can all reap the benefits of having this group among us.