Spaced Out

Bradley Hunter Welch, organ – Photo: Courtesy the artist

Spaced Out

The Dallas Symphony returns to the Meyerson this weekend, with reduced capacity and safety protocols. Here’s a report on Friday’s concert.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Saturday, September 5, 2020

 

Dallas — Performing arts organizations are beginning to peek out from their COVID-19 bomb shelters. The pandemic was a tsunami that silenced live arts worldwide. But recently, although the virus still reigns supreme, cautious and reformatted concert season announcements are reappearing in my email inbox as such organizations figure out how to proceed.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra shuttered live performance back in March, and after a summer of some online performances, is cautiously reopening the Meyerson with limited seating. The Fall opening concert only used the brass and percussion sections augmented by the Lay Family Organ. Actually, it was a pre-season amuse-bouche because the classical  concert series will officially open next weekend with the newly minted Music Director Fabio Luisi and pianist Yefim Bronfman dishing up some Beethoven.

But Friday night’s brass, percussion and organ extravaganza was quite an experience. Separated from the entire orchestra, this concert allowed DSO dedicatees to appreciate two of the sections that makes up the orchestra’s collection of superb players. Further, with the stage denuded of the risers that the full ensemble requires, the sound was quite different — deeper and more resonant and burnished.

This was also a golden opportunity to hear the rarely used Lay Family Organ and admire the virtuosic artistry of DSO organist, Bradley Hunter Welch.

Because the audience was limited to 75, the 2,000-seat Meyerson felt empty, as though we were attending a rehearsal. Other precautions included limiting the concert to one-hour, no intermission (to reduce the chance of mingling), and mandatory masks.

The program had some patriotic overtones that would have been more appropriate for a Fourth of July Celebration. However, it was made up of such excellent music, mostly arranged but some originally written for the available forces, that no one cared.

Conductor Sarah Hicks – Photo: Minnesota Orchestra

Since this was the first concert of the season, it had to open with our national anthem. A couple of arrangers gave J. S. Smith’s controversial tune a dignified and original setting and the scant audience dutifully stood for its performance.

Adolphus Hailstork’s energetic American Fanfare followed. His music combines his African American roots with the European classical music he learned from composer David Diamond and a stint with the famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. His American Fanfare is an exciting roller-coaster ride through all of his influences and energized by mixed meter.

Speaking of fanfares, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is probably the best known of all of them. This was the most dramatic performance of the evening. DSO’s timpanist Brain Jones was impressive as he made the low-pitch drums speak with clarity without overpowering the ensemble.

Eugene Gigout, the French turn-of-the century organist and composer, was represented by his two best-known works. Welch tore into his virtuoso showpiece, Toccata in B minor, with impressive fingers and clever registrations. Gigout’s other work on the program, Grand Choeur et Dialogue, was a hit as arranged for organ and brass by trumpeter Rolf Smedvig. The original version is a dialogue between the different ranks on concert organs. Smedvig turned it into a dialogue between the brass ensemble and the organ. Both Gigout pieces were excellently played, revealing the intricacies of the composer’s style.

Michael Kamen’s “Dectet for Brass” was revelatory, demonstrating the composer’s abilities, which are harder to distinguish in his many film scores. The work started out with a beautiful horn solo, marvelously played by DSO’s Haley Hoops. Hoops set the mood of the work, which was adapted by the entire ensemble. It was a terrific performance.

Welsh tore into Charles Ives’ Variations on “America”, a satiric set of virtuosic variations for organ. Welsh made the most of it playing the work with its intended humor at the forefront. You had to love the bird twitter stop! Welsh was impressive all evening.

A less than satisfactory arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s

“The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “Great Gate of Kiev,” from his Pictures at an Exhibition. Familiarity with the original version for piano and Maurice Ravel’s technicolor orchestration, made this sparse arrangement sound slightly vacant. Adding a part for organ for the occasion would have been an improvement.

An arrangement of “La Rejouissance” and “Minuet/Trio,” a selection from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, as arranged for brass, added some welcome music from the Baroque era. Two Sousa marches, “The Washington Post March” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” ended the program with some zip. Special mention has to go to DSO’s tubaist Matthew Good, who played the famous piccolo descant on his usually more lumbering instrument with impressive pizzazz.

Sarah Hicks conducted. I had trouble figuring out what she was doing, as did the musicians, which caused sloppy playing, unregulated dynamics, and an occasional dissolution of ensemble.

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Reduced capacity at the Meyerson when the Dallas Symphony performed on Sept. 10, 2020 - Photo Sylvia Elzafon

Reduced capacity at the Meyerson when the Dallas Symphony performed on Sept. 10, 2020 – Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

Reduced But Full

The Dallas Symphony opened its first official season with Fabio Luisi as Music Director, and he didn’t disappoint on works by Brahms and Beethoven.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Orchestra opened its 2020 season on Thursday evening but it was very different from previous such occasions. Gone was the sweep of designer gowns and the display of men trapped in an old and now-ill-fitting tux. The small audience was restricted to just a few, who were forlornly scattered in the cavernous Meyerson Symphony Center. It looked like the attendance you might expect at a concert with an announced  program of the complete works of Anton Webern.

This COVID-19 era completely shut down live performances starting in March and this concert is a brave and successful effort by DSO president and CEO Kim Noltemy to arise and present a modified season. The results were displayed on this opening concert and it was a marvelous experience.

The small and masked audience of less than 100 souls or so were people drawn from the pool of subscribers and scattered throughout the hall. There were only 35 musicians on the stage. Strings were masked but not the winds, who obviously need access to their mouth to play. The chamber-sized orchestra was necessarily spaced out on the extended stage.

The original programming was filled with huge works. We would have heard the U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Frontispiece,  Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yefim Bronfman, and Copland’s thrilling Third Symphony.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony on Sept. 10, 2020 - Photo Sylvia Elzafon

Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony on Sept. 10, 2020 – Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

But this concert was programed with audience pleasing works that were suitable for a chamber sized orchestra. Beethoven’s classically oriented Piano Concerto No. 2 and his modest, but also assertive, Symphony No. 8. So, the DSO was distilled down to its  parfum, a concentration of its very best players. The result is a matchless chamber orchestra made up of exceptional artists.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, was actually his first, but the concerto in C-major was the first to be published in 1795 so it claimed the name of Piano Concerto Number 1,  leaving his earlier effort, not published 1801, the name of No. 2.

What this means is that the second concerto is Mozartian in form and style. However, the later Beethoven occasionally peeks out with some drama and musical contrasts that marked his later works. Beethoven was always unhappy with the pianoforte of his early days. He pushed the makers to do more. He wanted more sound and a wider range than they offered. Since he was the leading pianist and composer of his day, the pianoforte manufactures listened and started on the path to the modern piano.

All this background is necessary when judging a performance of this work. Fortunately, Bronfman captured this hybrid style with effortless perfection. Music director Fabio Luisi was right with him, both stylistically and in ensemble.

Bronfman’s technical excellence allowed him to offer a reading with clarity and mixing the light touch of the classical period with the more robust sounds that are found in Beethoven’s later works. His hushed moments were beautiful and he never overplayed the piano when delivering Beethoven’s demands for more sound. He also played cadenzi written by Beethoven, instead of some later and showier offerings. The finale got a rousing performance and the scattered audience gave both Luisi and Bronfman a spontaneous standing ovation.

Beethoven’s eighth symphony stands between two giants, his No. 7 and the massive No. 9. In a way, like the second concerto, this is a refreshing, even classically oriented, symphony crammed full of cross rhythms, motivic development, and sudden dynamic contrasts from very soft to very loud. However, it is full of musical jokes that Luisi mostly ignored.

Other than that, this was a superb performance. With the chamber-sized orchestra, this reading is closer to how Beethoven would have heard the work. Beethoven conducted the premiere but he reportedly made a mess of it due to his advancing deafness.

By contrast, Luisi was completely in charge. His conducting without a baton had the effect of condensing his podium technique to a body-sized frame, which made the moments he burst out of such restrictions all the more effective and thrilling. Yet he wasn’t tied to his technique. His gestures actually conducted the music in addition to the tempi. Beethoven’s oddly placed accents came out of the texture like hammer strikes. Beethoven’s tempi and harmonic sudden changes were meticulously observed, but, again, the humorous jokes were missing.

Still, this was a unique, carefully crafted and creatively considered reading.

The reduced orchestra delivered exactly what Luisi asked for and played a wonderful performance. Considering this was the first time these players were in a spread-out chamber formation, and were returning from a six-month hiatus, the ensemble was surprisingly together and intonation was remarkable.  

Lastly, solo bows at the end went to deserving players but, in my opinion the bassoonist should have been included. 

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The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth opened its season with an online performance celebrating Hungarian music.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Fort Worth — The virtual concert seasons have begun. As performing arts try to save themselves in this COVID-19 era, a wide range of alternative methods are beginning to appear, including drive-in venues. On Saturday, the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth chose to keep the intimate nature of chamber music by opening the season with an online concert (it will present online concerts in October and November).

There was a tinge of the familiar because the program originated in their usual venue, the auditorium at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The concert met the high standards we have come to expect from CMSFW ever since Gary Levinson took over as artistic director.

The safety requirements these days sacrifices the camaraderie of the audience, an important element of CMSFW’s recent successes. Because of the intimacy of the hall, the regulars in the audience, many of them long-time supporters, even have their favorite chair. But, alas, this is the way life is these days and probably will be for a few seasons. We have to adjust.

The concert was prerecorded, mostly because of the massive amount of equipment required to make such a program video-worthy, both sight and sound-wise. The result was excellent. The instruments were all balanced with each other; a difficult result to create.

This concert was programmed around Hungarian music. Thus, the main work on the program was Antonin Dvořák’s divine Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81. This is a surefire audience pleaser and a personal favorite of yours truly.

In a 30-minute pre-concert talk, CMSFW presented a conversation between Levinson and the celebrated program annotator and writer Laurie Shulman. It was quite fascinating and made full use of the video medium by showing many visuals and playing brief excepts. Schulman gave us the academics and Levinson gave us the viewpoint of the players. When the concert started, we were prepped for Hungarianism. To underpin this, the program opened with two related amuse-gueules before the main course.

Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in E minor, Op. 72, No. 2, was sensitively played by Aaron Boyd, the Director of Chamber Music and Professor of Violin at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Next up was a fiery performance of Johannes Brahms‘ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor, from Op. 65a, delivered with aplomb by Levinson.

The second movement of the set, played here, is based on the dance form named starodávný, which means “old one” or “ancient one,” implying a very old genesis. The languid mood of the beautiful and haunting melody has made it a favorite. Boyd caught the essence of the dance and gave an involving performance.

In contrast, Levinson, in his role as violinist, launched a blaze of notes with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. This work is probably one of the best-known selections in all of classical music, heard in everything from serious movies to wacky cartoons. This movement is based on tunes Brahms gathered from Roma festivals and they represent the great variety of moods from very fast, even frantic, to languid and even sexy. Levinson captured all of this perfectly, but he especially shone in the fast virtuoso passages.

After all of this, we were eager for the main course of Dvořák’s much-loved Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81.

Viollinists Levinson and Boyd were joined by pianist Baya Kakouberi, violist Dmitry Kustanovich, and cellist Allan Steele. Kakouberi is known internationally as a superb solo and collaborative pianist. Kustanovich and Steele are both in the Fort Worth Symphony.

When the quintet started, the serene and beautiful main theme was as entrancing as ever with Alan Steele’s rendition. His cello sound is both warm and assertive. The explosion that followed woke us from our reverie. Later on, Levinson took the melody in a higher octave and, hearing it that way, answered the question of why Dvořák first gave to the warm tenor singing quality of the cello for its first presentation. It was still beautiful but somehow not as warm or comforting played on the violin in its upper register.

In the first movement, the quartet and Kakouberi handed the music’s melodic units between them in such a smooth fashion that the listener could barely notice. Thanks to the ensemble skill of the players, the opening theme kept peeking out until it was finally recapitulated.

Kakouberi played the entire quintet without a page turner and with the ease of visiting an old friend. Her balance with the string quartet was always exact, coming forward when requested and then fading back into the texture.

In another innovative opening, the second movement opens with a viola solo. Kustanovich certainly gave it its due, with his viola’s deep, musky or slightly muted sound. Words to describe it fail me; all violas sound different by a degree. His is unmistakably viola-ish, but still has enough brilliance to sound out clearly in the ensemble without sounding like a violin. The passage, with short offbeats, is always an ensemble challenge, but here they were quite precise. Also, tempo was right on in the middle movement.

The third movement is a sparkler of virtuosity and rhythmic diversity. It was only missing the foot stops so characteristic of this kind of music in Roma hands. It started out on the fast side but settled down after the first tempo change. However, it was straining at the reins for most of the movement. But it sure was exciting.

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Cliburn Competition Postponed

Cliburn Competition Postponed

Due to pandemic-related challenges, the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has been moved to 2022; other Cliburn contests also change.

by TJ Staff

published Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Fort Worth — Big pandemic news regarding the biggest international arts event in North Texas, the Cliburn’s quadriennial International Piano Competition. It is being moved back a year, from 2021 to 2022; and that changes the timing of the other Cliburn competitions, too, for this cycle only.

Below is the full news release:

  • national Junior Piano Competition and Festival

Details for the Amateur and Junior Competitions to be announced as venue and other confirmations are made. 

The Cliburn announces today that the 16th edition of its flagship Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will now be held June 2–18, 2022, at Bass Performance Hall and Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU, in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The Competition was previously slated for May 27–June 12, 2021.

The Cliburn Competition is a once-every-four-years opportunity for us to showcase exceptional artists to the world, to bring the international classical music community together in Fort Worth, to create a singular event for our hometown, and, in the end, to launch careers. It’s become clear in recent months that the continuing effects of the pandemic will prevent us from producing an event at the level and with the impact that our patrons, our supporters, and—most importantly—our competitors deserve. Now, with a clear path forward, we can plan a Competition that will achieve new heights and be a fitting celebration of international strength and unity after such challenging times.

We look forward to celebrating with you in 2022, and, in the meantime, watch for upcoming announcements that will offer opportunities to connect with the Cliburn and with stellar artists in the coming months.

No action is necessary for patrons who have already purchased tickets for the 2021 Cliburn Competition; their purchase will automatically transfer to the postponed dates. Premium subscriptions remain on sale and are available HERE. Other subscription packages and individual tickets will go on sale in 2021.

The Cliburn’s competition cycle will change, for this period only, to:

  • June 2–18, 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
  • Fall 2022 Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition

June 2023 Cliburn Intere.

2017 Cliburn gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo – Photo: Ralph Lauer

The Cliburn decided to postpone the Competition, a first since the organization’s inception in 1962, citing the following:

Social distancing and safety protocols for in-person events – the vibrancy of the Cliburn Competition is built around the energy of the audience. Though the Cliburn is a leader in classical music webcasting, the in-person atmosphere is an element that also sets it apart; the competitors remember the warmth of patrons in Fort Worth for many years after. The health of the patrons is of utmost importance, and postponing will offer the opportunity to safely gather.

International travel – the international nature of the Competition is foundational, and it is uncertain if people from all around the globe (competitors, attendees, press) will be able to or feel comfortable with traveling to Texas in 2021.

Winners’ touring – The primary goal of the Competition is the launch of careers. Doing so at a time when concert tours have been suspended is not in the best interest of the new winners.

Planning uncertainty – the planning of the Competition is a complex, multiyear process, which is obviously hindered by the unpredictability of the pandemic globally.

 

NEW DATES

  • October 14, 2021 |Application submission deadline
  • March 6–12, 2022 | Screening Auditions*
  • March 30, 2022 | Announcement of competitors to the public
  • June 2, 2022 | Competition begins
  • June 18, 2022 | Awards ceremony

* For the first time, the Screening Auditions will be held in the Cliburn’s hometown, Fort Worth, Texas. Seventy-two applicants will be chosen to perform a 25-minute recital in front of a live audience and the Screening Jury. From those, 30 will be selected to return to Fort Worth in June to compete.

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Fort Worth Opera Names General Director

Roderick Cox - roderickcox.com

Afton Battle – Photo: Courtesy Fort Worth Opera

Fort Worth Opera Names General Director

Former opera singer Afton Battle becomes the organization’s eighth General Director, effective immediately.

by TJ Staff

published Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Fort Worth — This week the Fort Worth Opera named its eighth general director, Texas native and former opera singer Afton Battle. Read the news release below, and look for an interview with Ms. Battle coming on TheaterJones.

Fort Worth Opera (FWO) is delighted to announce that after a six-month international search, the Board of Trustees has proudly chosen Afton Battle to become the company’s eighth general director, effective immediately. The appointment of Ms. Battle, a native of Amarillo, marks a return to her home state of Texas, where she graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in Voice Performance, before attending Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey and receiving a Master of Music in Voice Performance and Pedagogy. After carving out a successful career as a young operatic singer, she became a highly regarded Arts Administrator, Development Director and Consultant in the art, ballet, and theater worlds of Chicago and New York City, masterminding several significant corporate campaigns, before joining Fort Worth Opera this month to lead the company.

“We are thrilled to announce that Afton will be our new General Director. Her warmth, energy, focus, and fresh perspectives on our beloved art form make her ideally suited to lead us into Fort Worth Opera’s 75th anniversary and beyond,” says Fort Worth Opera Board Chair Nelson E. Claytor, Ph.D. “Our search process was thorough and rigorous, with many excellent candidates, and I cannot say enough to thank the outstanding search committee, staff, and Board for their dedication throughout this process. Opera, and all the performing arts, face  great challenges in this time when we cannot gather  in the theater—but with Afton’s leadership I am confident that we will meet those challenges, become even more closely connected to our community, and come out of this difficult time stronger than ever.”

Ms. Battle comes to Fort Worth Opera following development and strategic consulting work with Red Clay Dance Company, the National Black Theatre, the African American Policy Forum, and Brooklyn arts and culture firm Red Olive Consulting. She was previously the Director of Development for the New York Theatre Workshop, Director of the Annual Campaign for America’s premiere ballet company, The Joffrey Ballet, and the Corporate and Foundation Relations and Individual Giving Manager for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to that, she served as the Program and Grants Manager for Bank Street College of Education in New York. As Ms. Battle joins Fort Worth Opera this season, she gratefully acknowledges Angelique Clay, President of the Field Foundation, and Mila Gibson, voice teacher, music educator, and founder of Amarillo Opera, for their mentorship, guidance, and career development advice that encouraged her to pursue a path in opera and arts administration.

“Fort Worth Opera is in an incredibly unique position — one of rebirth, evolution, and change,” says Battle. “I am excited to work in collaboration with Maestro Illick, the Board of Trustees, and our talented staff to take the company to the next level as FWO celebrates its diamond anniversary in 2021.

“The core values that are rooted in my very being will guide me as I lead FWO in eradicating inequities, celebrating our differences in diversity and promoting racial justice by offering thought-provoking opera that transcends the boundaries of language and cultural backgrounds. By incubating and nourishing the talent of singers, composers, librettists, and directors of all races, orientations, and ethnicities, we will create an organization where diversity and inclusivity are woven into our DNA.

“I have been chosen to steer this amazing company, and together we will focus on expanding our reach and engagement into communities that have been historically marginalized (Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQIA) by forging relationships with community leaders and stakeholders. Through innovative programming and rich partnerships, we will commune a vibrant network of engaged young professionals, build back the trust and support of the community who hold us up, and gradually move away from the festival season back to a year-round format. The work ahead of us will undoubtedly be difficult, but I am confident in the abilities of this incredible staff and Board to inspire this great city. We will become the People’s Opera Company.”

Ms. Battle’s long-term vision for Fort Worth Opera includes a commitment to forging new alliances with local arts organizations, bolstering current partnerships, expanding civic engagement through the company’s acclaimed educational programs and initiatives, and building a world-class Resident and Studio Artist Program to encourage and foster the growth of the next generation of emerging young opera singers. In addition to continuing FWO’s long legacy of offering a balance of operatic jewels, classic warhorses and cutting-edge contemporary works each season, Ms. Battle is dedicated to leveling the field of equity, inclusivity, and equality both on and off the stage. Upcoming seasons will expand upon the company’s successful Noches de Òpera programming and feature an even greater variety of fascinating stories, celebrating Fort Worth’s rich cultural mosaic.

“Afton Battle is a force of nature who will catapult Fort Worth Opera into the national spotlight,” say FWO Artistic Director, conductor and composer Joe Illick. “She has a brilliant mind, boundless energy, a genuine connection with the Fort Worth community, a deep love and understanding of opera, and above all, a real compassion for humanity that will be a guiding light for all that Fort Worth Opera does in the years to come. We are so fortunate to have her leading us! I feel inspired and excited to have this wonderful opportunity to work together with Ms. Battle.”

On May 29, 1946, three bold musicians, Eloise MacDonald Snyder, Betty Berry Spain, and Jeanne Axtell Walker, filed for a state corporation charter under the name Fort Worth Civic Opera Association. 74 years later, the company has become the longest continually active municipal opera association in Texas and the 14th oldest opera company in the United States. Under the leadership of Ms. Battle, FWO is poised to rise as an industry forerunner in artistic vitality, dedicated to serving the entire population of North Texas, while providing unparalleled access to the art form for the uninitiated, and bringing opera out into the community like never before.

 

ABOUT FORT WORTH OPERA: Founded in 1946, Fort Worth Opera is the oldest continually-performing opera company in Texas, and one of the 14 oldest opera companies in the United States. The organization has received national acclaim from critics and audiences alike for its artistic excellence. Beginning in 2017, Fort Worth Opera launched the second phase of its landmark, 10-year Opera of the Americas initiative with Noches de Ópera (Nights of Opera), a groundbreaking campaign that introduces powerful operas, each reflecting the diverse cultures of American audiences. 

Fort Worth Opera is sponsored in part by awards from The Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County, The City of Fort Worth, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and OPERA America. Additional Fort Worth Opera sponsors include: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; The Burnett Foundation; the Amon G. Carter Foundation; the Sid W. Richardson Foundation; Visit Fort Worth; Adeline & George McQueen Foundation, J.P. Morgan, Trustee; Smallwood Foundation,

J.P. Morgan, Trustee; Hattie Mae Lesley Foundation, Bank of America, Trustee; Virginia Hobbs Charitable Trust, Simmons Bank, Trustee; Garvey Texas Foundation; Mary Potishman Lard Trust; Fifth Avenue Foundation; The Thomas M. Helen McKee and John P. Ryan Foundation; R4 Foundation; Red Oak Foundation; The Rea Charitable Trust, Wells Fargo Trustee; Wells Fargo Foundation; and Autobahn.

American Airlines is the Official Airline of Fort Worth Opera.

Arts and Culture Texas Magazine is the Official Media Sponsor of Fort Worth Opera

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Fast and Furious

Conductor Patrick Summers - Photo Opus 3 Artists

Conductor Patrick Summers – Photo: Opus 3 Artists

Fast and Furious

The Fort Worth Symphony opened its season in a different theater, with conductor Patrick Summers and pianist Stewart Goodyear.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Thursday, September 24, 2020

Fort Worth — The opening classical concert of the Fort Worth Symphony’s season on Sept. 18 was a moto perpetuo concert. Between the lickety-split programming and guest conductor Patrick Summers’ brisk tempi, we were treated to a cascade of fast notes for 90 minutes. It was all very exciting, but a bit exhausting by the end.

The concert was not in the usual venue of Bass Performance Hall, which is closed at least through the end of 2020. Instead it was in Will Rogers Auditorium, a general-purpose hall that was not designed specifically for a symphony orchestra (or not even like Bass, which is designed for opera, Broadway tours, and music with the orchestra shell). The FWSO did the best they could to create a makeshift and suitable venue. The back curtain was raised to expose the brick wall behind it. This would be more reflective of the sound than the deadening effect of the massive curtain.

The orchestra was about half of its usual size and appropriately spaced. The strings all wore masks. A wall of acrylic panels separated the winds from the strings and every player had their own microphone. So, it is relatively safe to assume that the music was subtlety amplified, although it was not all that noticeable in the audience. Whoever was in charge of that maze of mics did a magnificent job of managing them. The small audience was scattered around the seating area — Will Rogers has about 800 more seats than Bass Hall.

We got a taste of guest conductor Summers’ energetic manner of conducting the National Anthem that opens every FWSO concert. His tempo and no-nonsense approach made for a fresh experience and the audience gustily sang along.

Summers was just as lively when he started Rossini’s charming warhorse and perennial favorite, the overture to Rossini’s laugh-laden opera The Barber of Seville. It is full of slow starts and smooth accelerandi to a climax — over and over again. This is a perfect piece for Summers’ skills of relentlessly driving the music to its logical conclusion.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 followed with the Canadian concert pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear. He is best known for playing the entire canon of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a day-long marathon. Listening to his performance, it was no surprise to discover that he was a student of Glen Gould, whose steely fingers and precise way of playing was evident throughout Goodyear’s performance.

Minimal use of the sustaining pedal created a sparklingly clear performance with every note an island. His technical abilities appear to be limitless and all of the scales, which permeate the work, were a miracle of nimble fingers, speed and crystalline playing. Missing was a dash of French Romanticism that cumulated in Saint-Saens’ works.

The opening was faster than the marked andante sostenuto. In fact, the romantic theme, borrowed from his pupil Gabriel Fauré, was not properly lingered over as if he couldn’t wait to get to the technical fireworks. His technical brilliance and clarity of touch, required by this concerto, was certainly impressive. The pianist plays almost continuously throughout, but Goodyear didn’t appear to tire one bit.

Goodyear’s concept of tempi worked just fine in the scherzo, marked leggieramente, and the final presto, a saltarella (very fast Italian folk dance), was a fireworks show of notes and G-minor arpeggios. The audience gave him a huge ovation when it ended. However, it was a different piece than we are used to hearing. Thanks to Summers, the orchestra kept up.

Bryce Dessner, left, and Jörgen van Rijen - Photo Shervin Lainez

Pianist Stewart Goodyear – Photo: Andrew Garn

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, in the bright key of A major, known as the “Italian,” ended the 90-minute, intermissionless concert. As a composer, Mendelssohn was a strict traditionalist as opposed to his daredevil contemporaries like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. His studies with Ludwig Berger, a former student of Muzio Clementi, gave his music a heavy flavor of J. S. Bach.

Mendelssohn’s music is often a run-on sentence and so it is with this symphony, especially in the hands of Summers. His tempi throughout were quite fast.

The first movement, marked allegro vivace, was almost as fast as the last movement, marked presto. The winds got the first challenge, with their fast and tongued 16th note chordal accompaniment to the bouncing theme, which needed a little more room to bounce.

The second movement gave us a respite. Summers gave it all the space it needs to sing its solemn song and the viola section was absolutely terrific. The third movement is a minuet, which was already out of style when this piece premiered. The horn section got their chance the shine in the trio and did a nice job of it. The last movement is a tarantella, a frantic and fast folk dance of ancient origins (it was thought that the bite of the tarantula caused such a frenzy). Speed is required in this movement and Summers took that advice to heart. It was very fast indeed. Kudos to all of the players, especially the strings, for keeping up.

Summers is best known for his work as artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, which he raised to international standards, and a stint as principal guest conductor with the San Francisco Opera. He nabbed a degree from Indiana University, famous for its opera program, and was in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program as an apprentice coach in the late 1980s.

A guest appearance at the Metropolitan Opera launched him to the top of the list of superstar opera conductors around the world. His fach may be opera, but he is equally at home on the symphonic podium, as he ably demonstrated on Sept. 18. Most importantly, he is an avid promoter of living composers.

Summers is a refreshing conductor. He is a bit wild with his gestures, but he is always enveloped in the music. He is excessive, effusive, energetic and effective. He eschews classic podium technique for his own way of communicating with his baton, but he is in complete control of every note. He knows exactly what he wants to do with it. Thus, he creates the whole work organically:  We start here, take a musical journey, and we end here.

Most importantly, it works splendidly. The reduced orchestra responded to his every move and gesture. He was right with pianist Goodyear — no easy job in his flashy dash through Saint-Seans’ finger-busting second piano concerto — all the way.

Perhaps we can hope for him to take on the currently vacant musical directorship of FWSO.

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