It was a relief to finally hear the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the Bass Performance Hall. Last year, the FWSO had to play in the acoustically horrific Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium after booting from the vastly superior Bass Hall just before the start of the season.
The season opener on Friday under the direction of Kevin John Edusei presented the standard mix of a contemporary work, a concert and a symphony in around two hours. The concert certainly showed the internationality of the current classical music scene with a conductor from Ghanaian and German parents, an Afro-American composer and a Taiwanese-Australian violin soloist.
Last year chamber orchestras made up of around 40 FWSO musicians performed. However, the new season began with the large orchestra. The 2,042-seat venue is at full capacity, and the orchestra reported around 660 spectators. Masks are compulsory in the audience, strings and percussion players wore them on stage.
Inspired by his experiences growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Brian Raphael Nabors’ pulse (2019) is a mostly lively rhapsody that unfolds in several contiguous episodes over 12 minutes.
In the opening, busy wind lines break out, and lyrical trumpet melodies – delivered with verve by the FWSO section – arise from rhythmic energies. Later, jagged orchestral accents accompany rattling and hammering percussion parts, and large tinny highlights announce ghostly slides in the violins. A slow, atmospheric coda brings the work to a peaceful conclusion.
With clear, economical gestures, Edusei gave a concise report that was only tarnished by the tendency for strings and brass to overwhelm the winds.
As a soloist, Ray Chen attacked the Sibelius Violin Concerto with ardent intensity. He sent virtuoso passages with verve that gave shape to even the thorniest passages. And it presented a shimmering tone that often glittered with colors.
But phrases in the first sentence often sounded choppy and mannered, with accents ending up in unusual places. Haunting melodies in the slow movement sometimes seemed forced and demanded more tenderness. Exaggerated accents influenced the finale, although Chen’s fiery spirit generally suited the character of the movement.
Edusei elicited expressive nuances from the orchestra, which supported Chen’s intensity with powerful playing. Still, brass tended to cover up the winds in balances again, and orchestral rhythms in the finale needed more crispness.
As an encore, Chen offered his own version of Waltz Matilda – the well-known Australian folk song that alternated between gloomy nostalgia and carefree joy.
In Dvorak’s light and rustic Eighth Symphony, Edusei again received expressive results from the orchestra. He gently tapered the ends of the phrases in the introductory topic and placed pleasant lingers in between. In the Scherzo of the third movement, he elicits a graceful swing from Bohemian dances. The finale exuded both feverish devotion and elegiac melancholy.
Although there were some subtle dynamic contrasts and mysterious pianos, reading often took more on the softer end of the dynamic spectrum. For example, the beginning of the slow movement was much louder than Dvorak’s marked mezzopiano.
Trumpets protruded from the textures at times, wind instruments did not always expressly agree, and intonation problems occasionally occurred in various places.
Despite these problems, Edusei proved to be an effective leader with a firm grasp of musical architecture. This listener looks forward to Edusei’s return to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in January when he will conduct the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Reps on September 18 at 7:30 p.m. and September 19 at 2 p.m. at Bass Performance Hall, Fourth and Commerce, Fort Worth. $ 25 to $ 99. 817-665-6000, fwsymphony.org.