Stage: Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Jesús Castro-Balbi, Emanuel Borok, and 18-year-old pianist Adam Golka all got a chance to shine in front of their hometown crowd, with FWSO.
Passion of the Conductor

For its summer mini-festival, FWSO delivered small works from proud Eastern Europeans.


Five years ago, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra began putting on a four-concert festival in August, each year devoted to a single composer — Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky have all been celebrated. Adding zip to the regular schedule and also keeping the musicians busy, this brainchild of conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya has become a welcome summer hit.

This year’s installment at Bass Performance Hall last week was equally impressive, and this time, several composers were featured. Passions of the Homeland offered a variety of pieces from Eastern Europe, including works by Dvorák, Smetana, Bartók, Liszt, Kodály, Janácek, and the contemporary Jakov Jakoulov. Unlike in the previous festivals, the FWSO performed a mix of less-epic works; even though Dvorák penned some of the finest symphonies of his generation, none was heard here. The change of pace was instigated by Harth-Bedoya. During intermission at a recent appearance, he said that he’s “getting away from the menu of overture, concerto, intermission, cocktail, symphony, and out of here, to make things more appealing.” Not only has the regular season been more interesting as a result, but the box office hasn’t suffered In fact, attendance is steady.

Another happy modification was featuring local musicians as soloists in the first three days. Each performer made a positive impression, especially cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi on opening night. A member of the TCU music faculty, Castro-Balbi gave a ravishing account of the Dvorák Cello Concerto — sensitive, knowing, and full of poetic insights. Harth-Bedoya also took the opportunity to introduce his new assistant, young Jeffrey Pollock, who led the orchestra in Smetana’s popular “Moldau,” from the larger tone picture My Country. His performance was yeoman-like and eager — suggesting better things to come — but seemed devoid of personality.

The next night, 18-year-old pianist Adam Golka, winner of the second China Shanghai International Piano Competition and currently enrolled in the TCU Artist Diploma program, tore up the keyboard with Liszt’s Totentanz for piano and orchestra. A free-for-all showpiece based on the familiar Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) chant from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, Totentanz showed that Golka has the strength, stamina, and musical savvy of a veteran performer — along with youthful enthusiasm — to handle the material. The prolonged standing ovation he received was well-earned.

The third guest was violinist Emanuel Borok, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and also something of an enigma. During DSO performances, he looks bored. He walks on stage, nods perfunctorily to the audience, turns to the orchestra for tuning, then sits down. No welcoming smile. No animated body language. Just business as usual. In Fort Worth, he also appeared lifeless, but his playing was extraordinary. Borok chose to play Jakov Jakoulov’s Gypsy Concerto from the composer’s Gypsy Requiem, a recent piece that the violinist is championing. Moody and mournful, it’s an acknowledgment of the gruesome fate that befell many European Gypsies during World War II; the number of their dead is second only to that of the Jews. Even the energetic sections seem drenched in sadness. As he explored the instrument’s upper reaches, Borok bathed the music in pure golden hues.

The festival’s only disappointment was the Dvorák Serenade in D minor for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, cello, and bass — an awkward combination that required a lot of seating rearrangement. Pleasant but with little to recommend it, the piece here sounded as if it were being sight-read.

The biggest effort of the four days, and a major undertaking, was the semi-staged performance of Dvorák’s Rusalka, a seldom-heard opera enjoying a revival this season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The orchestra pit was raised to floor level. The strings spread out in front of the stage. The brasses were stage left, and the woodwinds were to the right, leaving a generous space in between for the singers. In the second-tier boxes on either side of the stage perched the chorus.

Last summer, FWSO tackled Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a straightforward drama with minimal staging demands, and pulled it off. Rusalka, on the other hand, isn’t so easy. The opera revolves mostly around a lake — people and spooks are constantly going in and out of the drink. FWSO used an overgrown bathtub to suggest the body of water, but that wasn’t as tacky as the black-painted ladders hung with dark garlands to elevate the singers. There were also problems in logic. Transforming the spit-turner into a pastry chef makes sense if there’s no ox to roast, but why did the forest nymphs all have dark hair while singing about their lovely blonde tresses?

One nice touch came during the party scene, when the house lights were turned up and the singers looked out into the audience as if the concertgoers were the revelers. (There was no room onstage for dancers.)

Though FWSO does the best it can with visual effects, it focuses primarily on the music, and Rusalka was musically strong. Hanan Alattar sang the title role in a rich, full voice that was slow in warming up but grew in intensity and silkiness as the afternoon progressed. As the “other woman,” soprano Lori Phillips was splendid; her sumptuous voice has an unusual, dusky lower range to go with a powerful upper register. Her twin sister, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, was just as effective as the witch, Jezibaba. The fairy-tale prince was tenor Allan Glassman, last heard here a few months ago as Herod in Fort Worth Opera’s Salome. Even though his voice is slightly pinched on top, it’s strong and flexible.

The real hero of this and just about every other FWSO performance is Harth-Bedoya. In the handful of years that he’s been here, the young conductor has developed into a major musical figure, one who’s at home in nearly every setting — from the concert hall to the opera house to the ballet pit. And just as importantly, he has proved a successful leader, building his orchestra into a first-class organization. Keeping him here has turned out to be one of the best choices that FWSO has ever made.

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