Stage: Wednesday, August 15, 2002
Brahms Festival
8pm Thurs-Sat, 7pm Sun in Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $6-$99. 817-665-6000.
Here Comes the Sun

There is some sunshine in Brahms — conductors just have to work to elicit it.


Aimez-vous Brahms? the young Francoise Sagan asked in the title of her first novel 40 years ago. The question seems apt again as the Fort Worth Symphony launches a four-day Brahms Festival in Bass Performance Hall Thursday. If you like Brahms, you’ll find a healthy dose of the composer’s work up for grabs this weekend.

The four symphonies will be played in order, one each day, with the First Piano Concerto filling out the opening-night program and the Second Piano Concerto offered Saturday. Friday will see the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, and Sunday will close with the solo Violin Concerto. That’s a lot of Brahms — in fact, most of his major orchestral output. The faithful should be approaching nirvana by Sunday evening.

Not universally admired in its day, Brahms’ music gradually became a staple of European concert rooms. Many listeners turned away as he looked back to earlier classical forms and ideals, especially in Germany, where Richard Wagner was revolutionizing music with his gargantuan “music dramas” and their new chromatic harmonies. Amazing orchestral effects — six harpists thwacking away in the pit for the Rainbow Bridge music in Das Rheingold, with another off-stage, for instance — were the order of the day, and Brahms wasn’t having any. He labored four years over his first piano concerto, which failed miserably at its premiere, and waited 15 more years before introducing the First Symphony, which was finally a success.

I believe it was Rimsky-Korsakov who, while reading through a Brahms symphonic score, commented that “the sun doesn’t shine much in his music.” Meaning not that the piece was bad but that for him it lacked adventure — the opinion of a composer then electrifying Russian music with his audacious orchestrations and wild ideas. And there’s the rub. There’s plenty of sunshine in Brahms’ music as well as heavy syrup, and the challenge for a conductor is to part the clouds without sinking in the goo. These pieces won’t play themselves; you have to make them work. Fort Worth Symphony conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, just back from his summer job as director of the Auckland [New Zealand] Philharmonia, has shown an affinity for late-romantic music and this could be an ideal showcase for him. We’ll see.

The idea of featuring a major composer with a massive infusion of his work over four days started last year with a survey of Beethoven’s symphonies, something to fill in the orchestra’s extended contract before the regular season. Eight of the nine symphonies were presented, along with four overtures, with the colossal ninth heard later in the subscription series. The idea seemed to work. People came out in droves, the programs were well-prepared and frequently interesting, and everyone appeared happy. So this year it’s Brahms.

German pianist Markus Groh, winner of the 1995 Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians Competition in Brussels and the 1990 Artur Schnabel Competition, will play both piano concertos, his debut with the Fort Worth orchestra. The orchestra’s new concert master, Michael Shih, and first-chair cellist Brinton Averil Smith, with few opportunities to shine in the regular season, take on solo duties in the Double Concerto. Smith is making his final appearances before heading east to join the New York Philharmonic. The cellist is taking a year’s sabbatical, and let’s hope he makes it back. This is one musician we don’t want to lose. Smith performed the Dvorak Cello Concerto this month with Harth-Bedoya and his Auckland Philharmonia. The last soloist is young violinist Joseph Lin, who recently took first prize in the inaugural Michael Hill World Violin Competition in New Zealand and also appeared with the Auckland Philharmonia with Harth-Bedoya.

WRR-101.1-FM, a sponsor of the festival, will broadcast the four programs live, marking only the second time the radio station has done that with the orchestra.

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