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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 soloist Yefim Bronfman, and a newer work, “The Spark Catchers” by British composer Hannah Kendall.

“The Spark Catchers” is inspired by a poem of the same name by Lemn Sissay. The poem speaks of the East End Matchgirls strike of 1888, where woman factory workers went on strike for equal pay. Kendall constructed her work based on specific words and phrases from the text. It is crafted quite well, with great variety of instrumentation, rhythm, and texture. The Symphony program contains Kendall’s introduction to the work with detailed descriptions of the music. The composer mentions the “incredibly evocative poem,” but not the origin of the poem’s subject matter. While she says “The opening ‘Sparks and Strikes’ immediately creates vigor and liveliness,” she does not explain that it is in reference to women diving to catch sparks that threatened their lives. She continues her description with “This momentum continues into ‘The Molten Madness,’ maintaining the initial kinetic energy, whilst also producing a darker and brooding atmosphere introduced in the bass lines,” but again with no reference to the subject matter– in this case a spark. A section “culminates in ‘The Matchgirls March’ with its forceful and punchy chords.” While the music may describe it, mention should be made of the defiant strides taken by women fighting for equal rights. The title is also troubling– the poem says “The Matchmakers march,” and several historical references say “the Matchwomen’s strike.” The term “girl” is misplaced in this context, and does not serve to correct the previous more clichéd and patronizing accounts that argued the women were influenced or led by ‘outside forces.’ I also find it curious that the composer signed her name H. Kendall instead of using her first name Hannah. One would hope that a brilliant Black female composer would want to be identified by both her race and gender.

Conductor Valčuha led a spirited performance. Since few of the various quick and jazzy rhythmic figures repeat, there were a few missteps in the orchestra.

Pianist Yefim Bronfman returned to Houston to perform the famously difficult Third Piano Concerto by Rachmaninoff. He has recorded this concerto with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Bronfman is one of a handful of pianists who can play this piece with seeming effortlessness. The simple opening theme, evocative of a Russian folk tune, belies the technical fireworks that follow. Bronfman’s intimate and soft opening dynamic was slightly obscured by the orchestra. He was demonstrative in his louder passages yet managed to create a parlor atmosphere in the softer solo parts. At both dynamic spectrums, beauty of tone was a given. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Bronfman and Valčuha, who provided an attentive accompaniment. Orchestral tuttis were highly expressive, and Rachmaninoff’s orchestration provided a vehicle for rich colors and lively rhythms, all taken full advantage of by Valčuha. The Houston audience was enthusiastic, calling Bronfman back several times. Both conductor and orchestra applauded the soloist.

Just over a week ago, Kirill Gerstein performed this concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra, heard on a live simulcast. Another world-class pianist with a prodigious yet understated technique, it is fascinating to hear how the same notes played by two pianists can sound so different yet equally convincing.

“The Miraculous Mandarin” by Bartók is an orchestral blockbuster, written and orchestrated between 1918 and 1924. A pantomime ballet, it is based on a story of the deception, seduction, and violent murder of a Chinese Mandarin. The first performance in Cologne, Germany in 1926 caused a violent audience reaction and it was banned.

Valčuha led the Houston Symphony in a blockbuster rendition, adding to a string of “never sounded better” recent performances. For this piece, the orchestra had an augmented string section, which allowed Valčuha to balance the scored brass section and large percussion section. Valčuha’s approach was to tell a story, as if it was being created at the moment. Even with knowing the synopsis, I was eager to hear what came next. The piece features a rich and varied orchestration which the orchestra played to stunning effect. The musical journey included virtuosic string playing, including several notable viola section solos. Principal clarinet Mark Nuccio played the three seduction game solos, well, seductively. He was often joined by clarinetist Christian Schubert, who interacted seamlessly. Colorful woodwind solos and duos added expressive playing throughout. Cohesive brass playing was a hallmark of the performance, including impressive bass and tenor trombone solos. The timpani and percussion section played with balanced power and precision.

Juraj Valčuha has brought musical riches to Houston. I am eager to hear what comes next.

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