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Fort Worthians take pride in supporting a wide range of cultural events, but few programs have achieved the popularity of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra summer series, Concerts in the Garden.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the outdoor festival opened in 1991 as a collaboration between Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Fort Worth Botanical Society, and the City of Fort Worth’s Parks and Community Services Department. Attendance that first summer, under then-music director John Giordano, topped out at just over 4,000. Concerts in the Garden now reaches an audience more than 10 times that number each summer (June 5 to July 5).

Overcast clouds last Friday were a menacing threat, but little more than a trickle of rain fell the entire evening. The program’s Star Wars & Beyond theme brought out many audience member’s inner nerd, including one stormtrooper fabulously bedazzled in rhinestones.

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After a rousing rendition of the main theme from Superman (’80s version), Concerts in the Garden artistic director Andres Franco dutifully kept everyone abreast. For the next number, Franco reminded the crowd that 2015 was the year Michael J. Fox time-traveled to in Back to the Future. The main theme projected well through loudspeakers, but the strings sounded muted in lighter sections.

In a move that finally explained why a few Elsa lookalikes had shown up, Franco led the orchestra through “Let it Go” from Frozen. The arrangement was cute, but a little hokey at times with marching band percussive effects. The kids seemed to love it, though.

A string-centric rendition of the theme from Game of Thrones brought the biggest applause of the first half of the concert. The string section sounded confident and at ease playing HBO’s popular intro, but needless to say, the piece wasn’t Mahler.

One unexpected and touching moment came towards the end of the first hour. Just four days before, film score composer James Horner died while piloting his private plane. The number of film scores Horner composed include some of the most beautiful ever penned, and the scope of his loss is unimaginable. His more recent scores include Titanic and Avatar. The orchestra must have scrambled to put together the tribute, a medley of themes by Horner, but the effort was much appreciated by the audience.

After a little-known work by John Williams, a former Julliard School of Music classmate of Van Cliburn, the first half concluded and the sun began to set.

In a move that pitted Trekkies against Jedi Knight wannabes, Franco tested the audience’s fervor for each sci-fi dynasty by comparing applause. Star Wars won, but Star Trek music was next up.

During the sci-fi showdown, the vibe was more like a rock concert than an orchestra performance. Throughout the green space, FWSO staff turned on large fog machines. The smoke was hardly noticeable until several lasers beamed through it, creating a psychedelic curtain of green and blue that hovered only feet above the crowd. A transparent screen lit with neon green images of the Enterprise and other sci-fi imagery ratcheted up the visual intensity. The score was from the recent reboot Star Trek: Into Darkness. The lightshow was perfectly timed with the music and created a thrilling sensory overload.

From that point on, the arrangements were solid and made full use of the orchestra.

I had the impression the evening would be full of Star Wars selections. It turned out that just the last 15 minutes or so were reserved for “Princess Leia’s Theme,” “Imperial March,” and the film’s main theme. The Star Wars theme synced up with a fireworks show, which concluded the evening’s festivities. That, along with a presumably unplanned lightning show above, made for an impressive and highly enjoyable conclusion.

The event was well organized from beginning to end. Corralling thousands of folks to and fro in a large space like that can be daunting, and the small army of staffers and volunteers pulled it off admirably. In addition to large acts like Pink Martini and cover bands, it would be nice to see more local collaborations in the future like the one featuring local singer/songwriter Luke Wade.

Concerts in the Garden was reader’s choice for Best Classical Performance in Fort Worth Weekly’s 2014 Best Of Culture issue. With enthusiastic audience turnout like last Friday’s, it is easy to see why.

Concerts in the Garden runs through July 5. For ticket information, visit the FWSO website.

[Photo Credits: FWSO]

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