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ARCHIVE: HSO (Chronicle Concert 2013)

Originally published 7/13/2013

Tonight, I went to hear the Houston Symphony perform their annual Houston Chronicle concert at a packed Jones Hall. Featured soloist was clarinetist Lin Ma, winner of this year’s Ima Hogg Competition, along with works by Ravel and Shostakovich. This was the last of six concerts presented over 10 hours on the Jones Hall stage, each concert featuring a different Houston ensemble and offering free admission. A total of 8,000 people attended. This is an exceptionally generous gesture on the Symphony’s part, and a great community service to the general public. Judging from the lines at tables to sign up for subscriptions, it fulfilled its purpose.

On the podium was the young French conductor Fabien Gabel. He began the concert with Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’ocean (A Boat on the Ocean). This rarely performed work began as a suite for piano that included the well-known Alborada del gracioso. Ravel orchestrated these two movements a year later. Gabel conducted this piece without a baton, which helped elicit blended and flowing textures from the HSO. Their range and flexibility of dynamics and beautiful tonal colors made me wish for a second hearing. Lin Ma’s performance of Weber’s 2nd Clarinet Concerto was a second hearing, having heard him in the Ima Hogg finals at Stude Concert Hall. While he was spectacular before, tonight’s performance had an extra dimension of expression. He has just been given a one-year contract with the HSO and will take a year off school at Rice. Since he won the competition and won a job, he could be himself and enjoy the moment. Instead of eyes closed and going deep within himself (needed to maintain composure in competitions), he interacted with Gabel and the orchestra, much to the delight of the audience. He will be a great asset to the fine HSO woodwind section, although a temporary loss to the SSSO. For this piece, Gabel used a baton and changed his conducting style to match the German music. His innate lyricism was an asset in the Schubertian second movement, and his musicianship made him a fine accompanist for Lin. It was interesting to hear the differences between Jones Hall and Stude as expressed by Lin and the Symphony. Jones Hall sounded closer to an Angel Records recording; Stude more like DGG. Or, AR speakers for one and JBL’s for the other. Interesting to compare, but either way there is no substitute for live music.

The satirical 9th Symphony of Shostakovich was alternately brilliant and slightly less convincing. The opening would have benefitted from a few judicious clicks from Gabel’s baton to help align rhythms within and between sections. Otherwise, the first movement featured brilliant piccolo and violin solos, along with the deliberately obtrusive and humorous two-note V-I trombone figure (trom-BONE). The player seems lost, entering several times in the “wrong” place. The last time, he gets it right and is joined by the brass section. Also in the first movement, the composer rhythmically inserts his name in the music (Shos–ta–ko-vich). The second movement featured expressive wind solos, while the third movement showcased fine trumpet and snare drum solos in militaristic-styled parts. The last movement has expressively played bassoon solos that evolve into the brilliant final theme.

The final work, La Valse, made Ravel bookends for the concert. Here, Gabel seemed on his home turf, and the Houston Symphony gave a splendid performance of this orchestral tour-de-force. Difficult passages were expertly timed and executed, beginning with the smoky ambiance of an imaginary ballroom and ending with the all-out swirling of passionate waltzing. This evening, all this was for the taking. No ticket required.

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