FORT WORTH The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra served up a pretty good steak at Bass Hall on Friday night. All it needed was a little more sizzle.
The meat of the program consisted of two great works of the Romantic Era — Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Scottish” because the work was inspired by a visit to that land.
Violinist Benjamin Beilman had the spotlight for the Dvorak and displayed a level of talent especially remarkable in a 23-year-old. Maintaining a tone and approach that was right down the middle (never too rounded and never too sharp), he effortlessly spun legato-enriched ribbons of sound throughout the three-movement work. And guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony, maintained a tight rein on the orchestra that kept Beilman at the forefront. The performance was well controlled and solid in every respect. But, while it was correct, it did not really grab you by the lapels.
This could be, in part, because of the piece itself. As well as it compares with other great works in Dvorak’s canon, it is one of the few violin concertos from its time that does not have cadenzas — solo passages designed to let the violinist show off. So it would have been nice to have heard an encore by Beilman so he could have shown us the chops that garnered all the impressive awards listed in his bio.
The Mendelssohn was also nicely executed. Chen, who conducted the symphony without a score, was an especially animated presence on the podium and was fun to watch in the faster movements. But one of her most notable gifts cut both ways. She demonstrated a superior ability to wring the sweetness out of a slow passage. And while this often resulted in moments of highly nuanced beauty, it also tended to make the slower movements feel stretched out a bit.
Also, the performance of that symphony was prefaced by remarks from Chen and a few previews of what was about to be heard. While this sort of educational outreach is laudable, it was redundant in this case. The symphony provides pre-performance lectures and part of what Chen had to impart was printed in the program notes. The piece did not need all the help it got.
The concert opened with a delightful contemporary work, Saibei Dance (Lantern Festival) by Chinese composer An-Lun Huang. The brief work (about six minutes) was filled with dramatic crashes and sweeps of color, punctuated by moments of lyricism. It had a slight Eastern accent, but its structure and feel was largely Western. And it had a smile on its face from start to finish. Despite its brevity, it was one of the most appealing new works heard in Bass Hall in quite some time.
So, on the whole, it was a filling evening of music (with the winds having a particularly good night, by the way) that might have been even better with just a little more seasoning — and maybe an encore from the soloist.