Classical Music

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Showcased an Old Instrument and New Sounds

Classical musicians sometimes have a warped sense of time. For instance, as Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya reminded his audience on Saturday night in his introductory comments, Sergei Prokofiev -- a composer often considered "modern" and whose music was featured on this weekend's program -- was actually born more than 120 years ago.

Compared with Bach and Mozart, Prokofiev's in-your-face, percussive, often dissonant music is modern. Since many orchestras spend their time performing really old-old music, the merely "old" often sounds strikingly new.

That's why it is important for orchestras to also present the actually modern: It gives both the audience and the musicians a sense of perspective. On Saturday night, before they tackled Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto (composed in 1935) and his Seventh Symphony (1952), the orchestra opened with Crane, a one-movement symphonic work by Donnacha Dennehy that was composed in 2009.

Dennehy, an Irish composer in his early forties, is the FWSO's current composer-in-residence. He originally conceived Crane as a sort of urban ballet in which construction cranes would be choreographed to "dance" to live orchestral accompaniment. While the "ballet" project never materialized, the music Dennehy imagined for these industrial dancers has been reconfigured for the concert hall.

In Crane the percussion section clanged and banged somewhat expectedly given the music's inspiration. Dennehy's music is clearly influenced by mid-20th-century minimalism, a "modern" concept that itself sounds more old than new in 2014.

Dennehy's music did have some compelling and charming moments; the most effective musical trick in Crane was a recurring, reverberating theme in the strings and woodwinds that used a decrescendo to create a sort of ringing WAAH-Waah-waah sound. There were moments when this theme was mesmerizing, but sometimes the orchestra seemed to rush out of the phrase, not giving the last "waah" enough reverberation before launching ahead, or not creating an effective enough decrescendo. The piece as a whole suffered from some execution problems; in moments when high strings needed to shimmer perfectly, they struggled with intonation and unity. That being said, there are complexities hidden within Crane's repetitive minimalist patterns that demand another listen.

Some of the concert's most captivating moments came from the violin of guest soloist Anne Akiko Meyers. The instrument she plays, crafted in 1741 by the Italian violin maker Guerneri del Gesu received a great deal of attention in 2012 when it was purchased for a record amount of over $16 million. Why so much? Because this instrument is in near-perfect condition and because Guerneri del Gesu violins have a special sound -- more rich and warm, some argue, than the more famous Stradivarius violins.

When Guerneri del Gesu crafted his now famous Vieuxtemps violin in 1741, he couldn't have possibly imagined the sounds Fort Worth audiences heard coming from it over the weekend. The instrument was built while Bach was alive. Prokofiev's music demands an aggressive romanticism that at the time had not yet been conceived.

On Saturday night Meyers made the Vieuxtemps sound as if it were built for Prokofiev's fiery emotionalism. Her tone was rich, bold and intoxicating. It takes a lot of confidence to wield a $16 million instrument without a hint of intimidation. Meyers stage presence was strong without being overbearing and the sounds she evoked from her instrument were, well, as rich as you'd expect. Along with the capable FWSO and the enthusiastic direction of Harth-Bedoya, Prokofiev's old-ish music sounded fresh and alive.