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Houston Symphony and Chorus- 09/16/22

Houston Symphony and Chorus– Jones Hall, 09/16/22.

Friday evening marked the beginning of Juraj Valčuha’s tenure as music director of the Houston Symphony. For this inaugural weekend, Valčuha chose Verdi’s Requiem, bringing together the full Houston Symphony Chorus and the orchestra. These concerts also marked the beginning of Dr. Allen Hightower’s tenure as interim director of the chorus. These forces collaborated last May in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, albeit with different vocal soloists. This evening featured soprano Anna María Martínez, mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya, tenor Jonathan Tetelman, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy.

Tonight was a continuation of the fine playing and singing on display in those memorable May concerts. Valčuha gave rapt attention to dynamics, texture, and tone color. Particularly striking were the softer dynamics, with pianissimos (very soft) having multiple variations. After waiting several seconds for complete silence from the audience, he ushered in muted cellos, then violins, followed by the chorus whispering “Requiem.” The care taken in execution led by direction compelled actual listening from the audience. This was sanctuary from a loud and uncaring outside world.

The Houston Symphony Chorus sang with spirit and cohesion, a hallmark of years of superb direction from Betsy Cook Weber. Other than a different standing arrangement on stage, it is too early to tell what changes will happen under their new director. Valčuha gave the chorus ample attention, fine tuning balances, phrasing, and diction. One brief moment of insecurity came at the very beginning of the brisk fugue “Libera me.” Regardless, the choral singing was first-class throughout, enriching the emotional context.

The soloists were somewhat uneven in timbre. Tenor Tetelman had a clear and secure voice with engaging expression that developed throughout the evening. Bass Belosselskiy displayed the widebrato typical of many bass soloists. Showing admirable projection, it nevertheless felt as if the music was serving him rather than the reverse. Mezzo-soprano Prudenskaya had a gorgeous voice when singing in her upper register. Lower ranges were often covered, as if not fully supported by her breathing. Her demonstrative stage presence did not compensate for lost lines. Soprano Martínez, quite familiar to Houston audiences, reaffirmed her standing as one of the great sopranos of our time. Maintaining exquisite control of dynamics and pitch, her singing was a masterclass in style and grace.

The Houston Symphony had countless memorable moments– breathless pianissimos, virtuosic flourishes, and engaged expression. Each section acquitted themselves admirably. This music director could be transformative. Valčuha is supremely talented, with fresh ideas and a commitment to artistic excellence. His art is not superficial glitter, but solid gold. This collaboration will require cooperation and faith that his approach will produce an even greater ensemble. It is an auspicious beginning.

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