FORT WORTH — If symphonic music holds any appeal, consider this a strong “buy” recommendation for one of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s repeat performances this weekend. In his first concert as the orchestra’s new music director, on Friday night, Robert Spano brought new flexibility and expressive suavity to performances that were compelling start to finish.
The last two decades have seen dramatic improvements in both the Fort Worth and Dallas symphony orchestras. Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s 20 years as FWSO music director turned a sometimes scruffy provincial outfit into quite an accomplished ensemble. Jaap van Zweden’s 10 years with the DSO turned a very good orchestra into one often playing on the highest level.
Now both orchestras have richly experienced and respected veterans, both in their early 60s, at their helms: Spano with the FWSO, Fabio Luisi with the DSO. Both seem destined to bring new refinements and subtleties.
Coming to Fort Worth after 20 years heading the Atlanta Symphony, Spano opted for a conservative season-opening program at Bass Performance Hall. But this was probably a wise way to establish basic discipline and expectations.
The three 19th-century works from the Austro-German standard rep were composed within a mere 65 years. Spano took them in reverse chronology with the concerto, unusually, at the end.
The newest of the works, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, invokes an even earlier composer, although the theme probably isn’t by Haydn. Opening the concert, the performance set the tone for all that followed.
Rhythmic buoyancy was allied to bold contrasts and subtle shadings, with pianissimos as “charged” as they were delicate. The music smiled when it should, even danced at times.
Balances were carefully gauged. Even the FWSO trumpets, in the past often too loud, fit aptly in the ensemble — with the help of mellower rotary-valve instruments.
The Schubert B minor Symphony (D. 749), the best known of several symphonies the composer left unfinished, came next. Most of us familiar with the work probably think of it as “pleasant,” far less confrontational than Beethoven’s symphonies.
Spano, on the other hand, brought out the music’s unsettled, even spooky, character. Among those “charged” pianissimos, even in the cellos’ famous first-movement melody, full-orchestra assertions felt all the more portentous. It was an unusual performance, but, without falsifying the piece, it made me hear it in wholly new ways.
After intermission, pianist Jorge Federico Osorio served up the freshest Beethoven Emperor Concerto in memory. Defying auto-pilot norms, Osorio favored a subtly nuanced, sometimes almost improvisatory approach.
He hesitated before and on pivotal downbeats, to great effect, but didn’t hesitate to nudge the music along where it could use added urgency. Cascades of notes were elegantly tapered. Spano had the orchestra perfectly coordinated.
Unfortunately, the audience was plunged in darkness during the concert, leaving no way to read even movement markings. Half-light, please! But the program book print was so minuscule that a magnifying glass would be necessary in even bright light.
Repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Bass Performance Hall, Fourth and Commerce, Fort Worth. $26 to $99. 817-665-6000, fwsymphony.org.