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Houston Symphony Orchestra– 11/18/22

This evening featured the Houston Symphony with guest conductor Thomas Søndergård. Featured soloist was pianist Lise de la Salle performing Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. “D’un Matin de Printemps” by Lili Boulanger and Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F Major completed the program. Søndergård has recently been appointed music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. He was also on the short list for the Houston Symphony. Tonight’s concert demonstrated that he would have been a fine choice here.

Lili Boulanger’s premature death at age 24 is a great loss to music. From an exceptionally talented and accomplished family, she was beset with health problems from a very early age. “D’un Matin de Printemps” (“Of a Spring Morning”) is one of the last pieces Lili Boulanger completed. Stylistically, it is more playful and lighter than many of her works. The changes of tempo and meter reflect the impressionist Claude Debussy, but her subtle dissonances add a dash of paprika. Rather than relying on the inherent lack of conflict in whole-tones, she focuses on half-steps for added tension and uneasiness. The piece has several clarinet and cello solos, both admirably played by Thomas LeGrand and Brinton Smith. A violin solo was echoed by the principal second violin, perfectly complimenting one other. Conductor Søndergård drew out the many dynamics and colors in this five-minute masterpiece leaving us longing for what might have been created had Boulanger lived longer.

Robert Schumann’s piano concerto began as a Fantasy for piano and Orchestra. The first movement sounds complete, which this evening drew applause from the audience. Pianist Lise de la Salle certainly plays the notes quite well, and the first movement cadenza was a high point. Her tone has the crystalline clarity of spring water, but with about as much color. Her bright red high-healed shoes and shiny gold top were her most colorful onstage contributions. After the explosive opening of the concerto, oboist Anne Leek led the wind section in an expressive and color rich melody. Echoed by the piano, de la Salle did not equal that entrée. The second movement staccato notes in the piano sounded icy compared to Søndergård’s finely sculpted notes in the strings. The beautifully played cello section solos pleaded for compassion and empathy but received a cold shoulder from de la Salle. The third movement was more fulfilling musically, with a few exceptions. De la Salle was most comfortable in the dancing first theme. The second hemiola subject found her at odds with both the orchestra and the score, which shows light eighth notes. These, she purposely accented, showing a lack of consensus with the orchestra and Schumann. In the repeat of this music, there was a brief moment of insecurity with the orchestra, quickly recovered. The movement completed with impressive bravura playing and applause.

Brahms’ Third Symphony has been called the “Autumn” of his four symphonies. It also carries the informal nickname of “Clara,” referring to his love of Clara Schumann. While no hard evidence remains of any romantic relationship other than platonic, Brahms clearly adored the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. She must have been a remarkable woman, holding the attention and affection of the two greatest German symphonists of the 19th century. The third movement is, I believe, Brahms’ deeply personal love letter to Clara. It begins with a longing melody in the cellos (Brahms), answered by the violins (Clara). It dreams of what might have been. An ominous diminished chord passage is the memory of Robert. The middle section is a syncopated waltz. A contrasting lyrical subject expresses profound love, first with a bold crescendo and secondly with an excruciatingly tender diminuendo. The French horn expresses nostalgia with the first theme, echoed by an even sadder oboe. Bassoon and clarinet reminisce about what could have been. Finally, violins and cellos are in unison octaves, together. The concluding hairpins (swells) are a statement of sincerity. Of all Brahms’ works, none are more passionate or heart-felt than this. We can and should allow ourselves to feel what he is saying– in private, if necessary.

Søndergård presented a mature and fully formed interpretation of this great symphony, with the Houston Symphony playing at its recent high level. The string sections played with energy and cohesion, with Søndergård’s clear but relaxed approach adding richness and warmth to the string sound. The brass and timpani were full but supportive, adding volume when required. The solo woodwinds were stellar. While all are worthy of praise, special mention should go the clarinet and French horn, both largely featured in this symphony. Principal French horn William VerMeulen was simply spectacular in the demanding solo horn part. It would be difficult to imagine a finer sounding rendition. Clarinetist Mark Nuccio played with his customary expressive and colorful sound. While it may seem repetitious to offer him praise, I will never get tired of his playing. His suave leading of the second movement is but one of many examples. The third movement cello section solos were captivating, and played at a true mezzo voce dynamic. The fourth movement began and ended softly, with crackling energy in between.

This evening showed us Søndergård’s conducting style was a great fit for this orchestra, but all turned out for the best. There will be happy orchestras in Minneapolis and Houston.

A bouquet of flowers and special recognition was given to Nancy Goodearl, a long serving member of the French horn section who is retiring.

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