The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra welcomed guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen and pianist Markus Groh to Bass Hall this weekend, and welcome guests they were indeed. Ms. Chen led the orchestra in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and the Symphony in D minor of César Franck, with Mr. Groh joining them for the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor in between. It was a treat to hear a truly fresh and inspired performance of works that have come to be viewed by some – undeservedly so – as being staid warhorses of the repertoire.

Too often, performers aim to “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak. The desire to present a familiar work in a novel way quickly morphs into a tendency to play the work differently for the sake of being different, with coherence and regard for the printed score taking a back seat. Not so with Ms. Chen and Mr. Groh. These artists, with the help of the FWSO sounding as strong as I’ve heard them to date, manipulated subtleties of voicing and timbre often overlooked, and highlighted the genius of all three composers’ symphonic writing. (One not-so-subtle way of communicating her excitement to be conducting in Fort Worth again was Ms. Chen’s singing along while conducting the Star-Spangled Banner, and encouraging the audience to up the decibel level along with her.)

In the Beethoven, Ms. Chen created variety at every turn in the long and repetitious middle section, emphasizing drones in different instrument groups to create discrete emotional colorings. And Mr. Groh began his first solo (the opening flourish of forte chords notwithstanding) with a stunning tone; playing a bright-voiced Hamburg Steinway, he depressed the una corda pedal (the one to the left that muffles the sound) for a more distant color, but still projected the melody at a full-bodied dynamic. The effect was at once grand and intimate, and his directness of phrasing rendered it poignant while never self-indulgent. (More miraculous sound production and overpowering poise were on display in the second movement of Schumann’s Sonata no. 1 in F sharp minor, Mr. Groh’s choice of encore.) The heavy dose of late Romanticism in the Franck symphony makes it easy to overlook this kind of attention to expressive detail, but Ms. Chen achieved masterful effects in this work by highlighting unusual combinations of instruments, such as the trumpets’ doubling of the violins in the first movement.

In addition to their fruitful exploration of pianistic and orchestral colors, Mr. Groh and Ms. Chen used subtle alterations of pulse (or even its complete unflagging steadiness) to emotional effect. Mr. Groh’s generally strict tempi were perhaps a bit sober for the music of Schumann, but then again, the concerto is one of his more Classically-oriented works, and this interpretation was reflective of a storied German school of pianism, perhaps reminiscent of Wilhelm Kempff. The advantage of such straightforwardness is, of course, that any exception to the rule is magnified in significance; micro-rubatos at just the right moment were extremely touching and kept the performance warm-blooded.

Ms. Chen wrang out of the Coriolan Overture all the energy and pathos that could possibly be contained in a rhythmically taut, stylistically accurate reading. Here, a strict tempo became not an inhibition of passion, but a fierce denial of musical free will, the inevitability of fate. Despite seeming square, this work is masterfully proportioned, and indeed, the FWSO sounded like fate itself at the culmination of a perfectly paced crescendo leading to the return of the jarring opening material.

These works themselves, while taken for granted by many, are revolutionary in their own subtle ways, too. Beethoven wrote his Coriolan Overture not as a prelude to any particular performance of the play, but simply due to his own interest in the story, which involves the title character’s heroism and betrayal. Although such a performance was eventually arranged, the genesis of the piece as a freestanding work makes it almost a forerunner to the programmatic tone poems of the later nineteenth century. The Schumann concerto and Franck symphony are both of experimental form as well: they are cyclic, meaning they reprise material from early in the piece again later on. This is even more interesting in the case of the Schumann, as he did not compose the second and third movements until four years after he had written the first.

Instead of the customary finger-pointing at musicians who had soloed, indicating they should stand for special recognition, Ms. Chen dismounted her podium and walked through the orchestra to shake the hand of each soloist and offer personal congratulations. She was visibly thrilled to have been invited for a second opportunity to work with this orchestra, and after hearing what she was able to do with the FWSO, we were glad to have her.

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