Stage: Wednesday, August 27, 2003
Mendelssohn Festival
Thur-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm at Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. 817-665-6500. Single tickets $9-44. Four-day passes $19-120.
Florid Felix

FWSO continues its single-composer program with a look at the gentle Mendelssohn.


For those who love Felix Mendelssohn’s music or are just curious as to what he wrote besides the Wedding March, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is offering a four-day festival of his work this weekend. The orchestra’s third marathon series devoted to a single composer — Beethoven and Brahms have each had a nod — has proved remarkably popular and a welcome cash cow for the group’s summer season.

Mendelssohn has always had a loyal following, even with critics pooh-poohing his easygoing style and gentle harmonies. Composers who wear their hearts on their sleeves always seem to get in trouble, and Mendelssohn appears to be emerging from an extended period of neglect. A child prodigy, he wrote substantial works before his teens that are still performed. Then he streaked across the early 19th-century musical scene like a comet, successfully combining the careers of composer, conductor, and pianist, not unlike the late Leonard Bernstein. Also like a comet sighting, his life was brief, ending at age 38 apparently after a series of strokes. During his short life, a wealth of music poured from his pen, ranging from symphonies, concertos, and smaller works to massive choral pieces and even opera.

One of his great talents was in putting together innovative programs, a contribution that influences concerts today, including this festival. As regular conductor of both the Dusseldorf and Leipzig orchestras in an age when people clamored for new music, Mendelssohn also made room for older works. Conductors today have the reverse problem, squeezing modern works between old favorites, but Mendelssohn led the way in balancing important music with the public’s desires.

In 10 years, in what he labeled “historical concerts,” he introduced five Handel Oratorios to Germany, including Messiah, and presented the Beethoven Ninth Symphony six times because he thought it important. Mozart’s music appeared regularly, and Mendelssohn single-handedly rescued Bach from oblivion with performances of the old master’s great choral works, as well as conducting the Bach Triple Keyboard Concerto from the third piano.

At the same time, he championed the young Robert Schumann, presenting the premieres of his first two symphonies, and also the A minor piano Concerto, with Schumann’s wife, Clara, as soloist, along with lesser lights of the time.

Fort Worth Symphony conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya has been quietly altering his orchestra’s musical outlook in much the same way. A look at the coming season’s programs reveals a growing number of 20th-century works popping up with a judicious juggling of the old. His successful first four years with the orchestra earned him a new five-year contract, and, at 35, he seems to be coming into his own. He starts the season fresh from conducting the orchestras of Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit, as well as his regular summer work in New Zealand.

The conductor put together an ambitious series for this week’s festival, touching on much of Mendelssohn’s output, and one can’t help thinking of it in light of the composer’s own penchant for unusual programming. Thursday begins tamely enough with the E Minor Violin Concerto sandwiched between the First and Fourth Symphonies. Concert Master Michael Shih is the violin soloist. He gave a luminous reading of the violin concertos making up the Vivaldi Four Seasons earlier in the year.

But on Friday, the Third Symphony serves as a curtain raiser for a semi-staged, abridged version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, acted by the Hip Pocket Theater, as a complement to Mendelssohn’s incidental music, including, of course, the familiar Wedding March. The music is readily heard nowadays as the backbone of George Balanchine’s ballet of the same name. This staging gives one a chance to see how the original idea worked. Saturday’s program includes the mighty Fifth Symphony, “The Reformation,” and the choral Second Symphony, a piece that seldom sees the light of day anymore.

Harth-Bedoya concludes the festival Sunday evening with a performance of the oratorio Elijah for orchestra, five vocal soloists, and chorus, another rarity in these days of limited performing budgets. All of the choral programs will have supertitles above the proscenium either translating the text or describing the action.

If you love Mendelssohn, chances are you won’t be disappointed.

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