Did Fort Worth Symphony hit the right notes in ‘Ein Heldenleben’

FORT WORTH — Live performances of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) aren’t everyday experiences. Indeed, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra advertised its three weekend performances as the first ever in that city.

Why the rarity? Well, it’s a sprawling 45-minute piece calling for a huge orchestra — quadruple winds, eight horns, even two tubas. Adding those extra players adds to costs. And the musicians, from conductor on down, have lots of work to do.

The “hero” portrayed — half seriously, half in jest — is Strauss himself. After a grand opening self-portrait in music, he’s set upon by his “enemies” (critics), portrayed by chattering, shrieking winds, snarling trombones and grumbling tubas. (A FWSO musician assured me beforehand that nothing personal was meant.)

“The hero’s companion” portrays Strauss’ wife, Pauline de Ahna, an operatic soprano of notoriously mercurial temperament. Specifically, she’s personified by extended and often virtuosic violin solos, before supersaturated string harmonies evoke the couple’s love.

Offstage trumpets herald “The hero’s battlefield,” building up to a fearsome din of brass and drums. Having triumphed, our hero does his “works of peace,” including quotations from other Strauss works. Finally, led by solo violin and horn, the music evokes “The hero’s retreat from the world and fulfillment,” with pre-echoes of the last of the composer’s Four Last Songs, fully 50 years in the future.

This is a formidably complex and difficult piece, and Saturday night’s account, at Bass Performance Hall, wasn’t quite the one of dreams. Music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya could have plotted dynamics a little more strategically, and the playing didn’t always have CD-ready polish.

But it was a more than respectable performance, with fine contributions from every section and numerous soloists. There were thrilling passages, and moving ones, and one was grateful to hear everything in an acoustically gratifying hall. Concertmaster Michael Shih dispatched the extensive and often flamboyant violin solos with panache.

Harth-Bedoya’s spoken comments don’t always illuminate, but his introduction here surely helped the audience negotiate the piece.

Edvard Grieg’s incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem Peer Gynt would figure on any list of top 100 classical compositions, at least the familiar four-movement first suite therefrom. But I strained to think when I’d heard it, too, in concert.

Harth-Bedoya assembled his own mix of three movements from each of the composer’s two suites. It was especially a treat to hear the less familiar “Bridal Procession” (perky music rising to rousing), “Abduction of the Bride: Ingrid’s Lament” (nobly tragic music building to a pounding climax) and “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming: Stormy Evening on the Sea” (with, yes, wind and thunder effects).

Harth-Bedoya shaped the music affectionately and effectively, with some particularly lovely sounds from the strings. The performance was prefaced by folkish fiddlings from principal violist Laura Bruton backstage and from Shih toward the back of the audience. Harth-Bedoya’s comments didn’t really explain their significance.

Formerly classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News, Scott Cantrell continues covering the beat as a freelance writer.

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