An emotionally gripping Britten 'Serenade' from the Fort Worth Symphony and soloists

Ward Stare
Dallas Morning News

Whatever the play of neurons and chemicals involved, music can pack an emotional — even physical —wallop. That's how it was for me Friday night at Bass Performance Hall, in the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra's performance of Benjamin Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.

I've known and loved the piece for years: settings for tenor of poems about night and sleep, dreams and nightmares, in moods ranging from serene to terrifying. The horn provides  an unaccompanied prologue and offstage epilogue, deliberately exploring out-of-tune harmonics by non-use of the valves. To the poems, it supplies counterpoints by turns soothing, playful and threatening.

The poems were vividly delivered in Paul Appleby's mainly liquescent lyric tenor, although he sometimes spat out words more than needed and struggled with a couple of high notes. Placed slightly upstage from FWSO principal hornist Molly Norcross, he tended to be disadvantaged in balances.

The horn part, written for the tragically short-lived English virtuoso Dennis Brain, must be of fearsome difficulty. But, with only a couple of tiny slips, Norcross dispatched it with authority, elegance and astonishing breath control. High pianissimos amazed; "Queen and huntress" danced fleetly. Led by guest conductor Ward Stare, the strings supplied their own magic.


Stare, music director of the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic, is nothing if not a demonstrative conductor. The Beethoven Seventh Symphony, in particular, could have used a lot less of his interpretive dance.

Apart from slamming on the brakes too much in the winds-led trio of the scherzo, though, he gave the music apt momentum — and exhilaration and excitement when called for. Everything was shapely and elegantly detailed, the orchestra for the most part playing splendidly. Horns, though, had a couple more split notes than one wished, and trumpets — here mostly playing repeated notes — were sometimes too loud. 
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