top of page

ARCHIVE: HSO (March 2019)

Originally published 3/3/2019

Christoph Eschenbach’s return to conduct the Houston Symphony has become a celebrated event. Those orchestra members who worked with him during his 11-year tenure as music director and during his return visits know to expect exceptional performances. Eschenbach himself relishes the renewed musical friendships in Houston, something not uniformly experienced with orchestras elsewhere. Audience members are virtually guaranteed to be inspired by his concerts, and Saturday’s program at Jones Hall was true to form. Two works were featured– Anton Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony No. 4 and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto.

Leila Josefowicz, the scheduled soloist, is the concerto’s dedicatee and Salonen’s co-collaborator in its composition. Due to illness, she had to cancel her appearance. Stepping in at the last minute was Jennifer Koh, who is the only other major violinist who performs the exceptionally demanding work. In fact, she just did on February 1st and 2nd, with the Phoenix Symphony. (On those identical dates, Josefowicz was performing John Adams’ violin concerto with the composer conducting the Dallas Symphony.) Salonen’s concerto is as difficult and rarely performed as those of Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions, so having Koh ready and available was a stroke of good fortune for Eschenbach, who performed the concerto with Josefowicz and the National Symphony Orchestra almost three years ago. The work, a tour de force for soloist and orchestra, has four movements. Being cerebral and complex, it reflects the personality of the composer. The first movement, Mirage, is a technical marathon for the soloist, with the violin scrubbing through dissonant note patterns in mixed meters punctuated by percussion. Basses and low brass play “dark and resonant” wide harmonic intervals that contrast with close interval lines in the woodwinds. As with many works composed in the last 60 years, the strings primarily provide gesture and effect rather than melodic lines. The second movement, Pulse I, is in stark contrast to the first, reflecting the dull thoughts brought on by insomnia. Pulse II changes pace with musical references to rock music and pop culture. It features jazzy viola and cello solos, some of the very few melodic lines for string instruments. The final movement, Adieu, is Salonen’s sonic goodbye to the Los Angeles Philharmonic as he completed 17 years as music director. This had the most “staying power” and also provided the most effective vehicle for Koh to display her passion and colorful sound.

Bruckner’s 4th Symphony bears the composer’s subtitle, “Romantic.” Commonly thought to refer to the Romantic period in music, it actually makes reference to romantic notions of nature and the medieval era. Bruckner makes extensive use of solo French horn throughout the symphony, all expertly played by William VerMeulen. Solo flute is also prominently featured and was sensitively played by Aralee Dorough. Melodic content in the strings was mostly relegated to cellos and violas. The violas have several particularly important parts, which they projected with energy and cohesion. The extensive solo lines in the second movement were particularly beautiful. The Houston Symphony brass section produced a burnished and blended sound, full throated but never over-powering.

A hallmark of Eschenbach’s conducting is scrupulous attention to voicing and balance. Even with the massive forces on stage, all parts were clearly delineated. Dynamics and articulations were wide-ranging and immaculately controlled. The only flaw was an unexpectedly quick opening tempo for the Scherzo, which resulted in a few unsettled bars. On the whole, this concert represented the very best of the Houston Symphony. In this case, the customary Houston standing ovation was richly deserved.

Recent Posts

See All

Houston Symphony Orchestra– 01/14/23

Following a two-month hiatus, Houston Symphony Music Director Juraj Valčuha returned to Jones Hall to conduct “The Miraculous Mandarin” by Béla Bartók, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with

Houston Symphony Orchestra– 11/18/22

This evening featured the Houston Symphony with guest conductor Thomas Søndergård. Featured soloist was pianist Lise de la Salle performing Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. “D’un Matin de


bottom of page