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ARCHIVE: Intellect Supersedes Emotion at Houston Symphony Concert

Originally published 2/24/17

Thursday evening, the Houston Symphony presented three works conducted by former music director Hans Graf at Jones Hall. Each of the three pieces was devoid of excess emotion, but for markedly different reasons.

Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments opened the concert. Originally written in 1920, it was revised in1947, and features woodwinds and brass, sans strings and percussion. Stravinsky wrote the final portion, a hymn-like chorale, as his part of musical tributes by leading composers memorializing the death of Claude Debussy in 1918.

Stravinsky describes it as “an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.” Nine minutes long, the word “symphonies” points to “a sounding together” rather than symphonic form. Symphonies is unified by three distinct tempos that are mathematically related to each other, and must be played non-rubato, or with inflexible tempos. Stravinsky said, “This music is not meant to ‘please’ an audience, nor to arouse its passions.”

Graf’s intellectual, objective approach was perfect for achieving that end. The conductor was clear and precise in controlling the multiple tempo and meter changes. The outstanding wind section of the Houston Symphony deftly maintained balance, pitch and ensemble while shifting from one instrumental grouping to another. Stravinsky made extensive use of the solo flute in disjunct melodic lines, effortlessly played by Aralee Dorough.

Composer John Adams turned 70 a week ago. His Saxophone Concerto, composed in 2013, was presented as part of that celebration this season. Adams grew up listening to his father play saxophone in swing bands, as well as recordings of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Wayne Shorter at home. These served as inspiration for the piece. Adams stipulated that the concerto be played in the jazz style of saxophone playing, as opposed to classical style.

Beginning with a quick sizzle then an exploding firecracker, the music serves up a seemingly endless stream of jazz samples. We hear snatches of the riffs that must be floating around in Adams’ head since his youth. While initially interesting, after some time the music becomes a sonic “Where’s Waldo?” with countless details obscuring the picture. The listener is left with the impression of a musical jig-saw puzzle where all the pieces fit together but the artistic value is in doubt. The end, after nearly half an hour, comes several minutes too late.

None of the perceived shortcomings were due to Timothy McAllister, the concerto’s dedicatee, and who may be the only person on earth who can manage to play the exceptionally difficult solo part. (His recording with the Saint Louis Symphony won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in 2015.) McAllister is an exceptional performer, with limitless technique and musical imagination. He manages to find expression in the smallest phrase or fleeting passage, moving throughout the wide range of the alto saxophone with ease. The last part of the first movement, marked Tranquillo, suave, took on a sexy and sensuous character often associated with the saxophone. The last movement had non-stop virtuoso playing that ended abruptly. Recognizing that the piece had ended, the audience applauded in approval for McAllister and some relief that it was over.

Graf was efficient and precise in leading the multi-faceted orchestral accompaniment, which at times seemed like keeping kittens in a box. There was not a lot of emotion in the piece to draw on or express, again making Graf’s intellectual approach totally appropriate. The Houston Symphony did a generally admirable job with the complex orchestra part, although a couple of passages left the violins in the dust.

Following the first half, many listeners were yearning for a melody. That was to be fulfilled by the featured work, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in the classic orchestration by Maurice Ravel. Despite several later attempts, there has not been a better application of orchestral color to these ten movements originally written for piano.

What was somewhat disconcerting about Thursday’s performance was the absence of color. The problem appeared to be on the conductor’s podium. Hans Graf, after expertly leading two challenging works on the first half, seemed out of his element. He didn’t provide clear downbeats or clear emotional output. His downbeats in soft passages were so shallow the musicians ended up holding their breath, waiting to exhale. The resulting tension can be especially troublesome for wind players, and may have contributed to several uncharacteristic pitch problems in the brasses. The tempos were so fast at times that the woodwinds scrambled to keep up. It was breathless, but not in a good sense. The strings were fairly colorless compared to other concerts this season, and not all entrances were secure. The percussion, who did not play on the first half, were not uniformly aligned with the violins.

Graf seemed to be going through the motions rather than the emotions. He did not seem to enjoy the music or revisiting his former orchestra. It was disheartening to see the temporary deconstruction of this outstanding ensemble. The last movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” was where the Houston Symphony of late finally emerged. It was a rousing conclusion and brought the Jones Hall audience to its feet, although there is more to the success of a concert than a loud ending.

While there may have been many patrons in the hall who admire Hans Graf, it is doubtful how many on stage shared that feeling. Graf served ten years at the helm of the Houston Symphony, with mixed results and some lasting negative effects. Under the direction of Andrés Orozco-Estrada the orchestra is now in a different place, something those who decide on future engagements may wish to consider.

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