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ARCHIVE: HSO (October 2019)

Originally published 10/26/2019

This evening I went to hear the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall, conducted by Marek Janowski. The program was Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony, and Wagner– Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, and the Prelude to Act III and Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. DO NOT MISS THIS CONCERT! I’ll tell you why. No living conductor has more experience conducting Wagner than Maestro Janowski, and his interpretation of Beethoven is unsurpassed. Houston is honored to have him here to conduct our Symphony.

Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony is from his early period. It contains all the hallmarks of his compositional style– omnipresent rhythmic vitality and variety coupled with a strong sense of the function of harmony as it relates to form. Janowski’s unwavering dedication to dynamics and balance highlighted Beethoven’s genius for developing musical ideas. String passages routinely played at middle range dynamics acquired a delicacy and buoyancy not often heard in live concerts. The inherent difficulty of playing spiccato (off the string) notes at a true piano dynamic conveys the sensitivity of a soft touch versus a casual stroke. Trumpets and timpani were held to harmonically supportive roles. Carefully modulated crescendos and well-regulated subito pianos served to realize Beethoven’s gift for building tension. Each of the four movements has a tempo with a quicker qualifier. Janowski, age 80, took each movement on the fast side, belying the belief that older means slower. However, his precipitous beat resulted in two modifications– the third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, and the fourth movement, Allegro Molto, started at tempos that settled into slightly slower accounts. On the whole, the Houston Symphony displayed a singlemindedness of purpose and unified ensemble not always evident in the symphonies of Beethoven. Sometimes, old-school is the better approach.

The music of Richard Wagner is too often presented as a musical slug-fest, with a heavy brass section and flailing strings. In the hands of Marek Janowski, Wagner became wonderfully expressive and transparent. Proving that less is more, normally loud parts were layered and nuanced, making them flail-safe. Solo winds were exemplary, and the horn quartet with bassoons in the Meistersinger Prelude to Act III was quite beautiful. The brass section sounded full-bodied and noble. The strings in both overtures were energetic and rhythmically incisive. Notable in Tannhäuser Overture were the violas, capably led by principal Wayne Brooks. Concertmaster Yoonshin Song led the first violins with secure rhythm and impeccable bow control. Following her lead, the section is developing more unified playing. The cellos were one player short, but still gave richly cohesive and well-tuned section solos. The basses were the glue that held it all together. Their solo in Meistersinger sang out, while the multi-faceted counterpoint above had an extraordinary clarity rarely heard. That one spot is worth the trip downtown.

Be sure to go early. A pre-concert chamber music performance features Spohr’s Duo for Violin and Viola, with Tong Yan, violin, and Ferenc Illenyi, a member of the first-violin section, playing viola. It is a credit to the Houston Symphony that musicians can step up to play such difficult music so well. Again, DON’T MISS THIS CONCERT!

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