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Houston Symphony Orchestra- 09/23/22

Houston Symphony Orchestra– Jones Hall, 09/23/22.

This evening was the second subscription concert with the Houston Symphony’s new music director Juraj Valčuha. The concert opened with the world premiere of “Bright Idea” by Nico Muhly. Featured soloist was violinist Joshua Bell performing the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony completed the program.

“Bright Idea” was commissioned by the Houston Symphony as part of a commitment to new music. This particular piece had stylistic elements increasingly familiar to audiences– rhythmic patterns and mixed meters employed by John Adams, multi-tiered textures that harken back to Janacek, and the absence of melody (save for a repeated phrase in the trumpet). It began with promise with a solo violin joined by increasing numbers of instruments. This continued with repeated ideas that ultimately provided little form or direction. The overall effect was a tiresome drone of sound. Everything worth stating could have been done in half the 10-minute time. The fine orchestral playing was only partial compensation.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (1905) is one of the handful of top masterpieces for that instrument. Unique in its harmonic vocabulary and orchestral color, it has ample technical and emotional opportunities for the solo violin. These were rewarded with a stellar performance by classical superstar Joshua Bell. Valčuha provided an empathetic and astutely balanced accompaniment, ranging from his now trademark whisper-quiet dynamics to full-throated fortes in the tuttis. Bell projected well, with the burnished tone of his 1713 Strad lofting above the orchestra, even in the lower registers. The first movement opened up from musing intimacy to fiery cadenzas interspersed with orchestral exclamation points. The romantic second movement was given controlled passion. The third movement has stylistic elements of a polonaise, with the violin producing virtuosic variations of increasing difficulty. Bell tossed off the most difficult passages with ease and precision. He received several curtain calls, returning sans violin, which tacitly precluded any encores.

The performance of Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 was exceptional, even spectacular. Valčuha directed with precision and heart, inspiring stellar playing from the entire body of musicians. The strings produced unified and warm sounds, with Valčuha modulating balances, starting from the basses up. Concertmaster Yoonshin Song provided expert leadership along with a sparkling second movement solo. Percussion and keyboards were spot on. The brass section gave support in the climaxes, never overpowering. The solo winds made beautiful sounds, rich with color and imagination, which Valčuha encouraged. Cudos to oboe Jonathan Fischer, bassoon Rian Craypo, flute Aralee Dorough, clarinet Mark Nuccio, and French horn William VerMeulen. Valčuha’s understanding of this emotionally charged work shows great promise for the orchestra’s musical future. His demeanor reminds me of the great pianist Daniil Trifonov– somewhat reserved in person but an emotional powerhouse in performance.

Valčuha’s decision to program the Sibelius with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony has interesting connections. Sibelius’ home country of Finland shares a 790-mile border with Russia (Soviet Union), from which it gained independence in 1917. Shostakovich wrote his 5th Symphony in 1937, right in the middle of the Great Purge, where almost 2 million Russians were executed or sent to the Gulags. A few years earlier, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was criticized and Shostakovich was denounced by the Communist Party. The Fifth Symphony was his “creative response to justified criticism.” Nevertheless, it contains hidden meaning. Valčuha told the orchestra that Kurt Sanderling, the noted conductor and personal friend of Shostakovich, discussed the symphony with him. He said the ending, with repeated notes in the strings (A), represented his repeating “I, I, I, I, I” in personal defiance of his forced artistic restructuring. In art, as in life, the expression of personal freedom is in the I of the beholder.

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