Robert Spano Conducts the Fort Worth Symphony in Winning Interpretations of Varied Works

You must hear the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra this weekend. If you’re in Dallas, it’s worth the trip on I-30.

Friday night at Bass Performance Hall, Music Director Designate Robert Spano led the orchestra in winning performances of a varied repertoire. Everything was finely balanced, rhythmic and graduated.

Spano officially takes over as musical director in the fall, after two decades at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, one of the top 25 orchestras in the nation.

It was somewhat surprising that he accepted the position at the low-budget FWSO. Some see it as a sideways movement, even a step backwards. But Spano and the orchestra obviously have great chemistry; the musicians responded admirably to his clear and economical direction on Friday.

Spano has long championed the music of living American composers, including Jennifer Higdon. She was represented on the FWSO program in her best-known work, blue cathedral.

Composed after the death of his brother, blue cathedral presents calls and responses between the flute, Higdon’s instrument, and the clarinet, that of his brother. The music is often serene, blending 20th-century American influences – Copland and Barber, for example – and Impressionists, like Debussy. But darker energies occasionally surface, with declarative brass, biting strings and pounding drums.

Here and elsewhere, Spano has cultivated a soft dynamic, making the highlights more dramatic and meaningful. Principal flautist Jake Fridkis and principal clarinetist Stanislav Chernyshev deserve praise for their sensitive duets. The only downside to the playback was a cricket ringtone that rang twice on a customer’s phone.

Pianist Angela Cheng joined the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini. Rachmaninoff varies a catchy air by Paganini, Italian composer and violin virtuoso, and combines it with the chant “Dies irae” from the Catholic requiem mass. Among other pieces, the “Dies irae” also appears in the Fantastic Symphony, that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed on Friday.

Cheng unfurled song-like melodies with melting lyricism, flew through rhapsodic flourishes with sparkling clarity, and unleashed fiery sounds when needed. In the playful passages, she savors the offbeat accents and the “false” notes. She also pays particular attention to the orchestra, which skilfully complements her style. Standing ovations happen all the time here, but this one was busier than usual.

Pianist Angela Cheng performs Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX on April 8, 2022. (Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

by Respighi Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rometwo symphonic poems, evoke atmospheres and scenes that the composer has associated with different places in the Italian capital.

The FWSO served up sumptuous richness, with characterful woodwinds and powerful brass and percussion. Refined solos emerge from the orchestra one after another. In Pines of Rome, trumpet player Kyle Sherman brought understated dignity to his offstage part, phrasing lines with lyricism. And clarinetist Chernyshev lovingly crafted nocturnal music depicting the song of the nightingale.

Spano revealed an ability to build crescendos, reach moving heights and gradually release tension. He also mostly limited the trumpets, which tend to pop out of the set.

The program booklet provided notes for Higdon’s play, but none of the other selections, instead offering full-page biographies of Spano, Cheng, and Higdon. I could also do without the Star-Spangled Banner at the start of each FWSO concert.

But these are just quibbles for a nice evening. Spano returns to conduct the orchestra on the opening night of the 2022-23 season on September 9. Mark your calendars or go watch him lead the FWSO today or tomorrow.

Details

Rehearsals at 7:30 p.m. April 9 and 2 p.m. April 10 at Bass Performance Hall, Fourth and Commerce, Fort Worth. $25 to $99. 817-665-6000, fwsymphony.org.

Members of the brass section of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra perform at a concert in...
Members of the brass section of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra perform during a concert at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas on April 8, 2022. (Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)
Robert Spano conducts the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the Star-Spangled Banner before...

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