The Shift festival of North American orchestras, which opened Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts, is a festival sorely in need of an elevator pitch. It’s billed as celebrating the achievements of orchestras and their ability to think outside the box, and the four orchestras it features are chosen not only for their concert programming but also on the various community and outreach programs they’ve come up with. None of this is immediately evident from the festival’s rather austere logo or posters trumpeting the names of the orchestras involved, or from the concert programs themselves.
On Tuesday, however, the Fort Worth Symphony under its longtime conductor, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, offered a jam-packed program that was at once unfamiliar and festive — which is certainly a good flag to plant in the soil, however unclear the boundaries of the territory it’s claiming.
Shift isn’t necessarily supposed to be a festival of American music, but when a small orchestra is aiming to define itself to a new audience, new music is one clear way to go. Fort Worth embraced that by showcasing its two visiting composers, Anna Clyne and Jimmy Lopez. The evening opened with a wonderful 20-minute piece by Clyne, titled “Rift” (2016), which murmured and pulsed lyrically and earthly, sounding like something you’ve always known but forgotten. It was accompanied — not overshadowed — by equally strong choreography by Kitty McNamee for excellent dancers from the Texas Ballet Theater, with movements that both echoed and amplified the music: leaps that seemed to freeze in midair, ballet poses pulled like taffy so that a female dancer’s tendu would sway and swoop off-kilter, while the music growled.
On a regular subscription concert you won’t often get two pieces featuring soloists, but for this festival, the orchestra brought out the violinist Augustin Hadelich for as compelling a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” as I’ve ever heard. Hadelich is a sunny player, and here he gave radiant warmth and a veneer of thoughtfulness to a piece I tend to think of as tedious. The performance checked another of the Kennedy Center’s boxes by contributing to its ongoing commemoration of the Bernstein centennial.
The final piece was Lopez’s new orchestral arrangement of his 2015 opera “Bel Canto.” It was splashy but the least compelling work on the program, exposing some shrill-sounding playing from brass and winds, and building in each of its three movements to some playing that sounded shouted at the top of the instruments’ lungs.
For the most part, though, the orchestra sounded involved and vivid in a lovely concert. To get a full picture of the ensemble, one was supposed to attend its Monday afternoon concert at the National Museum of the American Indian, or bilingual “Peter and the Wolf” that some D.C. schoolchildren got to see at THEARC on Wednesday morning. This somewhat confused though well-meaning festival hasn’t quite figured out how to get that full picture across — another reason that elevator pitch would be useful. It would certainly help the organizers cut down on the preconcert remarks by the Kennedy Center’s Deborah Rutter and Washington Performing Arts’s Jenny Bilfield, along with a rousing speech by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) — remarks that went on almost as long as Clyne’s wonderful piece. The verbiage is unnecessary. There was plenty of music there, and it communicated just fine, to judge, not least, from the audience’s warm applause.
The Shift festival continues through Saturday night with performances by the Albany Symphony (Wednesday), the Indianapolis Symphony (Friday), and the National Symphony Orchestra (Saturday), as well as a number of auxiliary events throughout the city.