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ARCHIVE: ROCO (February 2019)

Originally published 2/24/2019


Saturday, ROCO presented an early evening concert at The Church of St. John the Divine. Guest conductor was Brett Mitchell, Music Director of the Colorado Symphony and familiar to Houston audiences as former Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony and Music Director of the Moores Opera Center. Mitchell conducted and curated “Games People Play,” an eclectic program that had something for everyone. He preceded each piece with comments to the sizeable audience, lending a cordial atmosphere to the concert.


The first piece, “Overture to The Wreckers,” was written 1902-1904 by English composer Ethyl Smyth. While performed quite well, the work sounded rather unsubstantial and musically naïve, raising the question as to whether its inclusion was simply to check off the female composer box. The highlight was the excellent orchestration by Mark Buller, who also writes the informative program notes for ROCO.


Next was “Orawa” by the avant-garde Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, best known for his film music including “The Pianist” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” While this work was not written for a movie, it is sonically descriptive of the Tatra Mountains in Poland and the river that flows through the area. The writing shifted between minimalist and multi-layered textures, displaying shades of Bartók and Janacek. It was delivered with stunning effect by Mitchell and the ROCO players, highlighted by violin and cello solos.


Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 featured ROCO principal cellist Richard Belcher. Many composers, including Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, considered this the greatest of all cello concertos. The solo cello enters dramatically after a short chord and is required to execute turbulent passage-work. In this performance, the first movement would have benefited from a quicker tempo and more dramatic flair. There were hints of insecurity on both podiums, with less than perfectly aligned syncopated entrances. The second movement, a tender minuet, showed delicate and crystalline tones from muted strings and a rich and expressive sound from Belcher. The third movement, which repeats some of the first movement material, had a more secure footing. It came to a rousing conclusion, earning the soloist a standing ovation.


In a move that is vital to the growth of classical music, ROCO has premiered over 65 commissions from living American composers. Continuing that tradition, they performed ROCOmotive by Jim Stephenson, a series of vignettes evoking model trains, or “Traignettes.” One could say they were the Engines of his Ingenuity. Speaking about the music, Stephenson displayed a sense of humor and a penchant for puns. The music itself was varied and enjoyable, with one movement sounding voluptuously grand in the manner of “The Enchanted Garden” from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The final movement, “Caboose,” featured a percussionist rubbing two model train tracks together. While providing a touch of theater, the result was inaudible.

A surprise addition was the spoken(!) work, “Geographical Fugue,” by Ernst Toch. Very clever and totally fun, it was given a spirited performance by several ROCO musicians conducted by Mitchell.


The concert concluded with Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony No. 35. Mitchell led a lively and finely shaped interpretation, maintaining control while allowing spontaneity. ROCO delivered an outstanding performance worthy of any top-notch professional orchestra. Notable was a virtuosic rendering of the tricky final movement, Presto. Here, as in the rest of the concert, concertmaster Scott St. John served as co-leader with Mitchell, providing continuous energy and superb playing.

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