When, during his first year as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya decided to start a season-launching “Great Performances Festival,” he aimed at the obvious with an all-Beethoven event. During the nine years since, he has chosen to concentrate on either a specific composer (such as Mendelssohn or Mahler) or national school (such as Bohemia or Russia). If there was a trend during the festival’s history, it’s been toward bigger and grander—culminating with the announcement and start of a three-year exploration of the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler, beginning in 2007.
That large project went of well for two years, until the economic downturn of 2008 intervened. Committed to financial security as a necessary aspect of artistic excellence, the orchestra cancelled the third year of the Mahler cycle in 2009 and scaled down to a second Beethoven festival instead.
For 2010, Harth-Bedoya is scaling back even further—in terms of logistics, at least—for a baroque festival, opening Friday night at Bass Performance Hall, with two different concerts following on Saturday and Sunday. Festival attendees who in the past might have seen or heard several hundred singers and instrumentalists onstage for massive works of Mendelssohn and Mahler will instead witness an orchestra of around two dozen musicians, drawn from the ranks of the orchestra’s sixty-five fulltime musicians. And, while attendees at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky festivals in years past heard music largely familiar to a majority of the audience, this year’s audience will experience music ranging from the iconically familiar Pachelbel Canon to rediscovered and virtually unknown Latin American baroque works.
The baroque era—officially designated as 1600-1750—includes the music of Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, and Vivaldi, and was in many ways the wellspring of modern classical music, with the first operas and concertos, and with the beginnings of the modern concert orchestra of strings, winds, and percussion. But even with the immense popularity of some of the music of the era, baroque music of any sort is a relative rarity on concerts of symphony orchestras. As of 2010, many American orchestras are probably playing more music written after 1950 than before 1750.
A lot of issues play into that situation. Although the modern orchestra was beginning to take shape by the early eighteenth century, the modern concert hall and the modern concept of a public concert simply didn’t exist. Much smaller orchestras played in the grand rooms of the aristocracy—or, conversely, larger orchestras made up mostly of winds played at grand outdoor occasions. The sounds produced by instruments of that era were both lower in volume and somewhat more pungent in character. As Harth-Bedoya points out, though using a reduced string section generally produces a balance that presents the music more convincingly than the string-heavy orchestras of today, it’s still not exactly the sound heard by listeners in the baroque era. Authenticity is not so much an issue as producing a sound and balance that presents the music to its best advantage in a large modern concert hall.
The festival’s first night will feature orchestra members as soloists in concertos, along with Pachelbel’s Canon and selections from Handel’s Water Music. Saturday will include, along with works of Bach, Purcell, and Rameau, vocal music from the Latin American baroque, when a now forgotten tradition of cathedral music thrived; soprano Ava Pine will perform as soloist. The third evening of the festival will include, along with other works, concertmaster Michael Shih’s hair-raising reading of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performed, appropriately, on the 1710 Davis Stradivarius violin.