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Juraj Valčuha's HSO Debut

This afternoon was the third and final concert of Juraj Valcuha’s debut following his appointment as Music Director. The program consisted of two pieces, performed without intermission. The first was Elegy for Strings by 36-year-old African-American composer Carlos Simon. Subtitled “A Cry from the Grave,” it is dedicated to “those who have been murdered by an oppressive power.” The short work had a single melodic idea, beginning in the violas, that is repeated in part or whole throughout. It is well-written, but falls short of the emotional impact one would expect given its dedication. Valcuha and the orchestra gave a worthy presentation.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was the featured work. It is a true test for conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus. Everything under Valchua’s direct control was superb. The HSO is performing with a level of commitment and precision that places it in the upper tier of American orchestras. This concert shows the potential for growth under Valcuha for even greater artistic results. It could be similar to what happened when George Szell took over the Cleveland Orchestra in 1946, transforming a respected orchestra into one of the finest in the world.

What made this concert so great? With any artistic creation, you need inspiration and execution. Here, Beethoven provides the inspiration with one of the greatest symphonic works ever conceived. It never fails to amaze given its concept and structure. To transform that genius into audible results is the task of the assembled musicians. At the helm is the conductor, who has to mold 200 individuals into a single mind– that of the composer. The conductor begins with the printed page, but that is only the beginning. It is impossible for a composer to notate every emotion, character, and tone color in a score, but what is written must be respected. Valcuha scrupulously followed Beethoven’s dynamic markings, which are often glossed over or overlooked in performances. Orchestral musicians are so familiar with iconic works that it is easy to think that if a dynamic is seen it is also heard. Clearly, details of dynamics, balance, and tone color were discussed in rehearsal. The first movement showed attention given to the little notes. (The big notes can take care of themselves.) True pianissimos (the softest notes) allowed for crescendos to forte and fortissimo (the loudest notes) and back down. The tempo maintained its energy, even given a slight slowing of the starting tempo after a few dozen bars. The length of notes, as written by Beethoven, was clearly defined. The Scherzo had graduated dynamics, quite difficult given the technical difficulties of the spiccato (off the string) passages. The third movement Adagio had expression with flexibility, as if created at the moment. That is what live music is all about. Particularly beautiful was the second violin and viola unison melody. The last movement recitative, played by unison cellos and basses, sounded noble rather than the more typical angry. The famous theme had a tenderness and transparency not always the case. The violas again provided expressive color in the interlude before the final section. Directed to play non-vibrato, it had a solemn religious feel to it– a prayer before festivities resumed.

Several individual musicians contributed to the excellent performance. Solo oboe (Anne Leek), solo clarinet (Mark Nuccio), solo bassoon (Rain Craypo), first and fourth horn (Bill VerMeulin and Ian Mayton), and timpani (Leonardo Soto) were but a few of many examples.

The fourth and last movement has added soloists and chorus. The Houston Symphony Chorus was superbly trained by Betsy Cook Weber. Aside from the singing, they filed onto the elevated seating in choreographed fashion, and sat completely still during the entire concert until standing in unison in the last movement. That was a visual representation of their discipline. They were well balanced and sang with lyrical tone (including the sopranos’ 12 measure long high A.) The four soloists had mixed results. Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss had ill-defined pitch due to excessive vibrato. Soprano Meagan Miller had a nice tone but tended to sing sharp. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a replacement singer. While she sang well, her voice was sometimes lost in the texture. Tenor Eric Cutler was a standout, both vocally and expressively.

This concert was simply outstanding. Hiring Juraj Valcuha was a coup. The future looks bright.

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