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ARCHIVE: HSO (April 2014)

Originally published 4/13/2014

I went to hear the Houston Symphony concert this afternoon. The orchestra played very well throughout, but I was struck by a curious lack of emotion on three podiums. First, the conductor’s podium. When the full orchestra stood and faced the audience for the entrance of former music director Hans Graf, it appeared to be a dutiful show of respect, with not a single smile to be seen. The program began with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. In seeming response to officious beats served up by the conductor, the musicians played with a professional detachment. All was accurate, but somehow devoid of the underlying drama and passion both implicit and explicit in the score. It was as if, having felt the joy and freedom of working under post-Graf conductors, the musicians were not anxious to relive past constrictions. The fight scenes were played with clenched teeth, reminding me of those wonderful Irish dancers who perform with their arms pressed to their sides as a sign of protest.

It was not until the passionate love theme, played by the full orchestra, that I heard the Houston Symphony of late. The sound was glorious, in spite of Graf’s looking as if he were dancing a polka. Following the return of the fight scene, the ascending line in unison trumpets was thrilling in its power and precision, and sounded for all the world like a triumphant declaration of freedom. After the crashing timpani roll, the love theme, now transformed into a wailful funeral march, was expressively played by the cellos and violas. They did so without encouragement from the conductor’s podium. Graf spent the entire performance conducting melodies as they appeared throughout the winds and brass, leaving the strings to coordinate their intricately timed passages by themselves. That they were able to do so, and so well, is a testament to their expertise.

The second podium that was curiously devoid of emotion was that of the solo cellist, Johannes Moser. Moser performed Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso and Rococo Variations. He is a wonderful cellist, with a beautiful sound and a prodigious technique, but his interpretations seemed designed to show he clever he can be, with the focus on himself rather than the music. He wore red socks and black patent leather shoes, along with a smile that followed anything that was designed to be clever rather than imaginative. That can work for Pezzo, but it wears thin in Rococo, which he played like Rococo-lite. No matter what curveballs were thrown (and there were many), the orchestra deftly followed and accommodated him. Moser is a proponent of electronic cello music, and that influences and informs his playing. While classical music can surely benefit from a fresh perspective and the shedding of stuffiness, I question the value of making it a parody of itself.

The third podium was that holding the score to Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. This piece offered up Graf’s most involved conducting, and exceptional playing by the Houston Symphony. But, I would be hard pressed to recall any melodic material from the dense and brilliantly orchestrated score, and the emotions expressed are somewhat muddled. The music was taken from the score to a never-staged opera. It may be that the missing operatic voices would have provided melodic clarity and emotional context, such as found in Prokofiev’s masterful Romeo and Juliet and Fifth Symphony.

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