Stage: Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Metroplex concert halls were recently treated to two rising stars — Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Olga Kern.


When they hired him three years ago, Fort Worth Symphony conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya seemed far from a rising star. After a nondescript guest appearance and a hesitant interview that suggested nobody at home behind the handsome young face, his hiring looked like an orchestral blunder. All that was needed was black crepe and a funeral march to complete the picture.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the grave. Harth-Bedoya blossomed with each new program, gaining confidence and artistic depth. And amazingly turned into a whiz-bang orchestra builder. His string section in particular is a polished, flexible unit dramatically improved over what he inherited. The acoustical problem of brasses overpowering the strings in his medium-sized orchestra he solved by spreading the first and second violins across the front of the stage, giving more oomph with which to compete. Concert managers and opera directors took notice, and work offers poured in — more now than he can handle. Why he chose to hide his light under a bushel basket is anyone’s guess, but there’s no denying he’s a gifted talent and at 35 is teetering on the edge of a major career. The Fort Worth Symphony recently extended his contract four years to secure him until 2008.

The Dallas Symphony joined the crowd of admirers, and Harth-Bedoya made his debut conducting that orchestra last week. His program was not unlike the last one he conducted in Fort Worth: The first half was devoted to 20th-century works, in this case four dances from Alberto Ginastera’s ballet Estancia, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion, with a major 19th-century symphony closing the concert. Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony filled the bill here.

The dance pieces found the conductor in his element, reveling in the multi-rhythmic Latin music with joyous results that brought shouts of approval at the end. The gentle Wheat Dance in particular showed the Dallas French horns capable of as sweet a pianissimo as you’re likely to hear from the instrument.

The Bernstein Serenade may not have been to everyone’s taste. The meandering violin solo threads its way in angular turns through a piece that seems to enjoy inside allusions to other music along the way. The waltz theme from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier pops up, as do references to Bernstein’s own Fancy Free and Candide. Occasional sweeping surges carry the music along but not to great effect. Gary Levinson, who enjoys the title of Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, was violin soloist and gave a persuasive account of the music with a bright, solid sound. He may even have won some converts to the piece.

The performance revealed the Meyerson Symphony Center’s weaker points. The impressive-looking hall seems to have a reverberation hang time a couple of seconds too long, which allows big sounds to collide in mid-air. Major symphonic crescendos can be a sonic wasteland that blur and lose identity. Orchestra seating down front and in the rear is particularly vulnerable to the distortion. However, orchestra terrace seating at the sides of the hall, on the same level as the musicians, is more reliable.

But Harth-Bedoya was at his best nonetheless. The Dvorak Symphony, in particular, showed off a welcome relaxed quality and expansiveness apparent in his reading that he led without score, as he did the Ginastera work. While he champions new music and may even prefer the idiom, the conductor has a natural talent for large romantic pieces that are the bread and butter of any orchestra, which may have tipped the scales for him when the Fort Worth directorship was up for grabs.

While Harth-Bedoya was appearing with the Dallas Symphony, another musician on the cusp of stardom was performing with his Fort Worth Symphony. Pianist Olga Kern, co-winner of the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, returned as soloist in the popular Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with guest conductor Jahja Ling. Her reception was something of a triumph. Already a local favorite since the competition, the tall, willowy blonde is developing into a major musical force, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to predict an important career for the young Russian, even at this stage of the game. If she fulfills her promise, she would be the first Cliburn winner since Radu Lupu to break into the top ranks of international pianists. Letter-writers, save your ink: It’s true that many previous winners are making their living either performing or teaching or both. Most are respected professionals making valuable contributions to music. But the fact is that none but Lupu has entered the mainstream of international performing.

And Kern appears to have the whole package. She commands a full, lush, unforced sound — the biggest sound of any of the last competition’s finalists. The only women who come to mind who enjoyed this blessing are Gina Bachauer, Myra Hess, and to a degree the wonderful Alicia de la Rocha, who recently retired. Kern uses the gift with intelligent musical insight, finding depths in the music beyond her years.

In her Fort Worth appearance it took most of the concerto’s first movement for the pianist to settle down and to resolve a tempo tug-of-war between her and the conductor. Her expressive phrasing, which lingered over notes here and there, seemed to catch Ling off guard. He eventually tuned in, and they combined for a poignant slow movement and a free-for-all finale that had the audience screaming at the end. Ling also ended his program with a Dvorak Symphony, the Eighth (an unusual coincidence with both concerts featuring the Czech composer). The performance was full-bodied and satisfying and a measure of the orchestra’s new flexibility — it can respond to a guest conductor’s nuances of tonal color and balance with a freedom of expression that was not there before. Even performing miles away, Harth-Bedoya’s influence could be felt in Fort Worth.

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