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ARCHIVE: HSO (February 2020)

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Originally published 2/10/2020

Sunday afternoon, the Houston Symphony performed two symphonies and the piano concerto by Robert Schumann, part of a two-week-long Schumann Festival. Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted and Benjamin Grosvener was piano soloist.

Schumann’s works are not immediately accessible and do not play themselves. The dean of German Romantic music, he took a traditional approach to form and instrumentation, with a focus on structure and harmony. His orchestral scores require clarity, balance, and rhythmic precision, with attention to color changes implied by harmonic changes. Preparing and performing his four symphonies and two concertos (piano and cello) over two weeks is a major musical undertaking as well as a financial risk. Sunday’s concert showed uneven results.

The program began with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” composed in 1850. If any of Schumann’s symphonies can be considered the most popular, this would be the one. E-flat major was a favorite key of Schumann’s. The first movement begins with a heroic theme that resembles Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, also in E-flat major. As with the Beethoven, there are eighth-notes accompanying the main melody. In the Schumann, that rhythmic engine runs throughout most of the movement, making aligning with it critical for the ensemble. Schumann also wrote repeated sixteenth-notes in the strings which are virtually unplayable at an accelerated tempo. Orozco-Estrada began with a tempo that was one click too fast, which resulted in a muddying of the texture and a blurring of the counterpoint. The tempo stabilized and the music came into focus once the French horns had the theme.

The second movement is a leisurely Scherzo based on the Ländler, a German folk dance. Orozco-Estrada’s steady tempo allowed the music to unfold naturally, and the alternating legato and staccato passages contrasted well. Missing was a distinction between the rising phrases, with a downbeat dance pulse, and the descending phrases, where the emphasis is on the up-beats.

The third movement begins with a dolce theme in clarinets and bassoons. This is shortly diverted by a pulsing melody in the violins, directed by Orozco-Estrada in a straightforward rather than a parlando, or speaking manner. A third melodic idea in the violas and bassoons would have benefitted from a more singing tone, which would have provided more contrast to the four-note portato figures that come before and after. This would also have provided greater contrast with the fourth movement, where limited use of vibrato would illuminate the solemn and austere character.

The fourth movement, called the “Cathedral” movement, was inspired by the elevation of a Cardinal at the Cologne Cathedral. Schumann said this event was one of his most moving experiences. He marked the tempo “Freirlich” (solemn), and it opens with a stately chorale in trombones and French horns. The very high and challenging French horn part was flawless, as were the trombones, despite their having to sit without playing during the previous three movements. The solemn procession concludes with a fanfare– “Hallelujah! Praise to Thee!”– that is softly answered by the strings. Throughout the movement (as well as elsewhere), the timpani part was given sensitive attention.

The fifth movement was the most successful. A knee-slapping rustic dance, it found a natural home in the knee-flexing conducting technique used by Orozco-Estrada. The movement has several musical Easter eggs hidden in the texture– rhythmic intricacies, quick dynamic inflexions, and short trumpet fanfares that add to the fun. The main melody morphs into a heroic chorale, followed by fast-moving coda, all brilliantly played by the Houston Symphony musicians.

Alley Theatre Resident Acting Company member Jay Sullivan introduced each movement with words based on Schumann’s writings. He did so dressed as Schumann, seated at a desk in a rear corner of the stage. While well presented, I felt this was an unnecessary addition that detracted from the symphony’s single-minded continuity.

27-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvener has already enjoyed a very impressive career. As is the case with many younger performers, he puts an emphasis on speed and technical brilliance. He can certainly play the notes as quickly as anyone, but the emotions in Schumann’s concerto as expressed by the A-minor tone color were not as evident. Even at the relatively young age of 35, Schumann had an old soul and a troubled heart, which should be incorporated into the interpretation. The opening of the concerto, an outburst of angst, found conductor and soloist searching for consensus of tempo. This is shortly followed by a mournful oboe melody, beautifully played by Jonathan Fischer. Grosvener did play with a wide range of dynamics, but did not often go beyond loud and soft to layers of green, blue, and burnt umber. The first movement cadenza was the perfect vehicle for his prodigious skills. The second movement offered pianistic poetry, fine cello section solos, and delicately placed bass pizzicatos. The third movement is a Ländler with rhythmic similarities to the first movement of his 3rd Symphony. Grosvener drew on his chamber music experience to effectively interact with the orchestra and effortlessly dance through it. It would be interesting to hear this gifted pianist play this concerto in 10 or 15 years. Orozco-Estrada provided a well-phrased and cohesive accompaniment, although some clarinet solos were covered by the strings.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony began as his second in 1841. It was extensively revised and emerged in its final form in 1851. Judging from Orozco-Estrada’s movements, he appeared more comfortable conducting this symphony. Standing erect, with little or no bending from the waist or knees, he was able to summon from the orchestra the reverential dignity expressed in the score. Structural clarity and rhythmic precision came to the fore. This performance of the symphony was infinitely better than the last, as led by a different conductor.

The second movement “Romance” featured an elegant solo cello and oboe unison duet and a suave violin solo. Orozco-Estrada led a robust canon in the Scherzo, and an energetic and heroic Finale. The Houston Symphony sounded in top form.

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