By John W. Lambert
WASHINGTON — 2018 SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras launched its second season in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on April 10 with a concert featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble, which dates from 1912, has matured under Miguel Harth-Bedoya, now in his 18th season as music director and conductor.
This year, the four-concert festival also includes performances by the Albany Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra, along with numerous outreach events throughout the District of Columbia. 2018 SHIFT is a co-production of Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center.
America would do well to take notice and celebrate these presentations, for they provide important opportunities in the nation’s capital for some of our best regional orchestras to be heard. Many of these ensembles serve the arts and education with expertise and diligence but are often not well known beyond their respective home bases.
Take Texas, for example. There are fine orchestras in many of the Lone Star State’s principal cities, east and west, north and south, playing in excellent halls, some of which are, acoustically, truly state-of-the-art. That 2018 SHIFT has provided this opportunity for the Fort Worth Symphony to perform in one of the nation’s most prestigious venues is a very good thing, indeed!
One cannot launch a festival without a degree of speechifying, so there was some of that on this occasion, with welcoming remarks by Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter, Washington Performing Arts president and CEO Jenny Bilfield, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
But it was music that provided the main draw, and this program was remarkable on several levels. For openers, the oldest piece was composed in 1954; the others were from 2016 and 2017. There was rich variety in style and substance, and added visual appeal resulting from the involvement of a contingent from the Texas Ballet Theater in the first work, RIFT, by Anna Clyne (b. 1960), choreographed by Kitty McNamee.
Clyne’s score falls into three parts or “acts,” performed without pause. Over all the music is tonal, veering toward the romantic, albeit with some dissonance contained within. The scenario addresses, in the composer’s words, “the chaos and destruction… so prevalent in the world today.” (The work had its premiere in 2016 in Santa Cruz at the Cabrillo Festival, led by Marin Alsop.)
The dancers, working singly, in pairs, and as a larger ensemble, performed at the front of the stage, effectively lit by spots on each side. The orchestral sound was somewhat recessed, with the upper strings occasionally overpowered by the rest of the orchestra. Still, Harth-Bedoya elicited incisive and passionate playing, his musicians often leaning into their parts with evident commitment. As a unified piece, RIFT impressed with its deft depictions of varying emotions. The music and choreography were handsomely made one, and the overall results spoke of the creators’ originality. There was enthusiastic applause at the end of the 22-minute presentation for the dancers, principal instrumentalists, composer, and choreographer.
Bernstein’s quasi violin concerto Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) has many notable hallmarks, but only now, in this important centennial year, has it begun to achieve the popularity many long-term admirers have felt it is due. The solo artist here was Augustin Hadelich, performing from memory and delivering a compelling rendition that seemed totally in keeping with the conductor’s interpretive vision of the five-part work. The scoring for solo violin, harp, percussion, and strings means it is far more like chamber music, and its inherent intimacy — this is basically love music — proved touching more than overwhelming, although there are moments of exuberance. Again, the response was enthusiastic, with soloist and conductor summoned back to the stage several times.
The grand finale, Jimmy López’s Bel Canto: A Symphonic Canvas, which premiered last month in Atlanta, is an orchestral condensation of a stage work commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago that was telecast on PBS last year. It is heavily laden with brass and percussion, yet the strings and winds have more than ample opportunity to shine. The three-part score out-Mahlers Mahler in terms of volume and intensity (although its climaxes are not quite so extended). Even from considerably far back in the Concert Hall, one was tempted – more than once – to look up to make sure the ceiling was still intact; no dust seemed to fall at any point. And more than once one wondered if singers on an opera stage could have been heard over the orchestra as it played in this suite.
The music is at once dramatic and intense, certainly conveying with brilliance and stunning color the story contained in the Ann Patchett novel on which it is based. All that said, the score stands well on its own and is absolutely consistent with such notable suites compiled from operas as Vaclav Tálich’s 20th-century treatment of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen.
Some members of the audience drifted away before the end, perhaps due to the fact that the concert ended after 10 o’clock. But those who remained cheered the performance, its conductor, and the composer with great zeal.
2018 SHIFT events will be reported here, at Classical Voice North America, by members of the Music Critics Association of North America, whose annual meeting is being held in conjunction with the festival.
John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.