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ARCHIVE: HSO (June 2019)

Originally published 6/30/2019

Saturday evening I attended a concert with the Houston Symphony at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The HSO presented four free concerts this summer, with two full-scale concerts on consecutive nights and weekends, each with a different conductor. That is a huge undertaking and a service to Houston. This concert featured conductor Roderick Cox in Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, Rhapsodie hébraïque with Ima Hogg Competition Silver Medalist cellist Coleman Itzkoff.

Don Juan was afforded a virtuoso performance by the Houston Symphony. Cox took full advantage of the contrasting machismo and sensitive characters written into the score, allowing the tempos to propel, breathe and fluctuate as needed. The strings tossed off notoriously difficult passages, and Cox encouraged phrasing infused with color and nuance. Highlights included clarion French horns, brilliant trumpets, and a beautifully shaped oboe solo by Jonathan Fischer.

Schelomo was performed by Itzkoff and the Symphony at the Ima Hogg Competition finals last month at Stude Concert Hall. At its heart, this work is a deeply felt narrative about Solomon, wise king of Israel and son of King David. Incorporating Jewish musical idioms, it is revered by cellists as an expressive vehicle covering a wide range of emotions and the full pitch range of the instrument. Interestingly, the orchestral scoring is remarkably similar to the Strauss piece that preceded it. This could not have been planned since this program was formed before the competition winners were announced.

Given the extended quiet and reflective solo cello passages, the piece needed and would have benefitted from a hall such as Stude or Jones Hall. Indeed, this cellist could have, and many believed should have won that competition, which would have placed this performance in Jones Hall. In that venue, listeners would have been spared screaming children, microphone feedback, and people crossing from one side to the other at the very front of the seating area. Fortunately, the performance was so compelling that these distractions were minimized. Itzkoff has exceptional skills as a communicator, along with a fantastic sound and dead-on intonation. He varied his tone and vibrato to match the emotions in the music, which ranged from intimate sorrow, chest-pounding agony, to anger, weeping, and finally resignation. The overused descriptor “world-class” is fitting in this case. This young cellist has the talent to develop a major career. Conductor Cox provided an attentive and secure accompaniment, and the Houston Symphony sounded gloriously inspired in the rich score.

Don Juan and Beethoven’s Fifth are two well-known pieces that begin with a rest. This syncopation creates tension from the start. The first four notes of the Beethoven are the most famous in classical music, and Cox was sure to highlight that fact with a slightly slower tempo each time they appeared. While the ensemble was secure, it felt unduly ponderous. The first movement never achieved the momentum and tension required to represent the opposing forces implicit in the music. These are represented by contrasting themes, dynamics, harmonies, and sections (strings vs. winds). The result felt taught rather than taut.

As with all great works of art, this symphony can be approached on many different levels. An analytical/structural level (sonata form and functional harmony), a personal level (Beethoven’s struggle with increasing deafness), or a geopolitical level (a country grappling with impending war). These layers, along with a victorious ending, make this work timeless. Cox’s easy-going approach did little to elevate the performance beyond the page. He appeared to be going through the motions instead of the emotions. Too often, moments of excitement or expression came from the musicians’ initiative, such as the opening of the second movement, the trio of the Scherzo, and the Finale. While still enjoyable for the audience, an opportunity to convey and share common and currently relevant human emotions was lost.

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