FWSO thinks outside the music box

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with pianist Steven Osborne

• 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday

• Bass Hall, Fort Worth

• $11-$80

• 817-665-6000; www.fwsymphony.org

Posted 8:45am on Tuesday, Mar. 18, 2014

Patrons of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra concerts next weekend are going to hear a couple of unusual instruments that they may not have heard before: the didgeridoo and the Wagner tuba.

Each will add distinctive colors and textures to two of the works being performed.

“[The didgeridoo] is probably one of the oldest wind instruments in existence. Some sources say it goes back 5,000 years,” said Dennis Klophaus, the featured soloist in Earth Cry, a 20th-century piece by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe.

The instrument, which looks like a long wooden tube (the instrument Klophaus plays is 7 feet long), comes from Australia, where it is closely associated with the Aboriginal tribes. Klophaus said it is “basically a stick” that is probably best described as a wind instrument because the player blows into it. The resulting sound is an unearthly drone that is difficult to describe.


“[Audiences] are going to hear a sound they have never heard in a concert hall before,” said Klophaus, who more typically plays the trombone, as he did when he last performed with the symphony about 15 years ago. “And they won’t know whether it is a string instrument, or a brass instrument or a wind instrument.”

Klophaus, who is a freelance musician, said he got acquainted with the didgeridoo for practical rather than artistic reasons. It all started 10 years ago when a friend, former symphony horn player Sterling Procter, took up the penny whistle — a simple little instrument more closely associated with street musicians than symphony orchestras.

“He picks up a penny whistle and, the next thing I know, he’s recording on it and getting calls to play penny whistle all over the place,” Klophaus said.

So he went looking for his own niche instrument.

“My wife absolutely vetoed bagpipes,” said Klophaus, a North Carolina native. “So I bought a didgeridoo, watched YouTube videos and bought some recordings, and tried to copy what I heard.”

The “didge” (as Klophaus refers to it) is a bit problematic in the concert hall because traditional music notation does not apply to this unusual folk instrument.

So in Earth Cry, a piece symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya said he discovered while conducting in New Zealand and Australia, Klophaus’ part will be completely improvised.

“I will meet with the conductor [prior to the concert] to discuss the structure of the piece and he is going to describe the effects he wants,” Klophaus said. “Then, in performance, I’m going to use the string bass part to guide me through the piece. And when the maestro points, I play.”

Much less exotic, but almost as rarely heard in a symphony concert, is the Wagner tuba.

That’s because the instrument is most commonly used in Wagner operas (especially those that make up his famous Ring Cycle) rather than typical concert music.

The Wagner tuba differs from what most of us think of as a tuba in its size (it is much smaller) and sound.

Harth-Bedoya said the Wagner tuba has a slightly higher pitch that “falls somewhere between a [French] horn and euphonium [another variation on the tuba].”


Wagner guided the development of that instrument for use in his Ring Cycle operas, in particular, so they are being trotted out Friday through Sunday for the symphony’s performance of orchestral music from Gotterdammerung [Twilight of the Gods].

The Wagner tuba is seen much more often in an opera pit than a symphony orchestra. The same thing could be said of the composer himself.

Since World War II, many orchestras have shied away from performing Wagner’s music, which was embraced by Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich as a symbol of German nationalism. It would be easy to dismiss this as guilt by association had not Wagner expressed strong anti-Semitic views several decades before the rise of Nazism, most notably in a scathing tract titled Judaism in Music, which he published anonymously in 1850 and then republished with his name attached in 1869.

So Wagner has long been both a god and a pariah in classical music circles. Harth-Bedoya said the only previous performances of Wagner works by the FWSO have been “an overture here and there.” But he said most orchestras have moved beyond those concerns about the socio-political views of the composer.

“Music, as a living work of art, has no passport or allegiances,” he said. “Stalin’s favorite composer was Mozart. So, because Stalin loved Mozart, I should not like Mozart? I think we are past that. After all, it was [famed conductor Daniel] Barenboim who was the first one to bring Wagner to Israel.

“When you go to a restaurant, you don’t necessarily want to know about the personal life of the chef.”

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