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Houston Symphony Orchestra- 10/28/22

Houston Symphony Orchestra– Jones Hall, 10/28/22.

This evening’s concert featured three ladies. British conductor Jane Glover led an all-Mozart program with soloists Yoonshin Song and Joan DerHovsepian in the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola. The program began with Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner") and concluded with four entr’actes from “Thamos, King of Egypt.”

Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony began life as a serenade. As such, the first movement is a march. Glover conducted in cut-time (two beats to a bar, with a half-note being one beat), where every two bars makes a four-beat march. Glover focused more on character and shape rather than absolute precision and internal balance. While basically together, the first movement was not as clear as pieces in the three previous concerts with new music director Juraj Valčuha. Neither was the balance between sections or within chords as clearly defined. Varying degrees of dynamics were directed and produced, but subtleties of internal harmonic tension were often glossed over. The solo oboe was answered by a louder solo bassoon, where one would have wished for more empathy and less correction. Trumpets were better balanced than timpani in their primary function of reinforcing harmony. Tonally, the music took shape midway into the second movement. Aside from a few false accents in off-the-string figures, the movement had a classic Mozart sheen. The Menuetto was quick, robust, and formal. The Trio nicely contrasted with a softer and lighter dancing character. The Presto Finale was a vehicle of virtuosity. A rondo in form, each iteration of the theme has slight differences, all securely executed by the musicians. Of note was a unison string passage (a standard audition excerpt) that was well-rehearsed and brilliantly played.

The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola is one of Mozart’s greatest concertos and one of the best by any composer. Mozart played both the violin and the viola, and he gave equal importance to both instruments in this piece. The string sections have first and second violins and first and second violas, a fact that was overlooked balance-wise in this performance. On stage were nine first violins, eight second violins, and only six violas. All four sections should have been equal, or at least 5-5-4-4, along with three cellos and two basses. (There were five and three.) As a result, the viola soloist was a bit covered in the first movement. Pairs of oboes and French horns also had balance issues, with the horns answering the oboes at a higher volume. For their part, the soloists Song and DerHovsepian were first-rate. Intricate passage work was expertly played at equal technical levels. Contrasting the basic march pulse are slower, expressive sections to be played with rhythmic flexibility, securely carried off by both soloists. The cadenzas were well thought out, perfectly aligned, and given fresh treatment. The second movement’s thinner orchestration allowed DerHovsepian to show the beautiful tone of her Grancino viola. She and Song sensitively weaved their melodies together over a pulsing accompaniment. The Presto Finale sparkled with joyful dancing, closing with a high virtuosic passage for each soloist. We are fortunate to have artists of this caliber in our orchestra.

The four entr’actes from “Thamos, King of Egypt,” music composed for a theatrical drama, together form a make-shift symphony. Written when Mozart was 17, it points to future musical ideas even while not being fully formed. Glover introduced the work from the podium, providing historical and musical perspective. Incorporating novel musical and orchestral ideas, the work reflects the current fashion for “Sturm und Drang” (“Storm and Stress”), expressing drama and intense emotions. The first movement begins with three solemn chords (à la “Magic Flute”), followed by a fiery Allegro. This produced some of the most cohesive and balanced playing of the evening. The second features an extensive oboe solo, beautifully played by Jonathan Fischer. The third part has multiple meter and tempo changes reflecting shifting moods in the play. The fourth section is written in D-minor, perhaps providing a seed for the opera “Don Giovanni,” also in that key. It ends in D-major, however, providing a happy, or at least hopeful ending. Such was the case with this concert, which the Houston Symphony played quite well.

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