Conductor Search

A frontrunner? Spanish señor wakes up the Symphony's Hans Graf replacement race

A frontrunner? Spanish señor wakes up the Symphony's Hans Graf replacement race

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos lead a remarkable performance of Mozart "Serenade No. 6 in D Major," Mozart "Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major and Rimsky-Korsakov "Scheherazade." Courtesy photo
Frank Huang sits
Concertmaster Frank Huang navigated through the colorful Scheherazade solos with unparalleled artistry Courtesy of Houston Symphony
Aralee Dorough
Principal flutist Aralee Dorough's performance of the Mozart Concerto was stylistically elegant, poised and playful, and in virtuoso spirit, wrote her own cadenzas.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Frank Huang sits
Aralee Dorough

"I like to take a nap when I listen to Mozart," a lady behind me announced to her younger companion. "It relaxes me."

I laughed it off initially, but when she claimed she wasn't interested in hearing the Sibelius Violin Concerto on the Houston Symphony's next classical series program, I knew this misguided soul needed a major infusion of exquisite musical artistry. And we were in the right place, at Jones Hall, waiting for Spaniard Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to lead the orchestra.

On tap? Mozart's Serenade No. 6 in D Major, Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 featuring principal flutist Aralee Dorough and closing with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, the tale of the sexy and manipulative temptress. 

The fashionable dame got a musical spanking. Nothing about the evening's performance was worthy of a snooze as the Houston Symphony, playing with gusto, gave a virile, playful, elegant and memorable show. I laughed, cried, swayed, stood on my feet, whistled and cat called, elated and proud that the musicians showed her up.

Take that.

In the Serenade, concertmaster Frank Huang, principal second violinist Jennifer Owen, principal violinist Wayne Brooks and principal bassist David Malone found an equilibrium between impassioned playfulness and classical refinement. I found myself bobbing, doing a happy chair dance to the tuneful melodies.

Dorough rocked out her concerto, opting for a stylistic approach rather than one focusing on pure technical proficiency. In the spirit of virtuosity, she did write her own cadenzas, all appropriate, beautiful and fitting. She has the kind of sound that shimmers with overtones and fills the hall, without sounding heavy and forced. 

And then there was Scheherazade, where Huang's seductive and colorful solos (I teared up) brought the princess to life and were contrasted by exceptionally colorful wind playing including bionic tongue action courtesy of the flutes and trumpets. As always, I can always count on my favorite bassist Eric Larson for special hairography effects.

I continue to be baffled at how much and how quickly a conductor can shape the sound of an orchestra. Frühbeck, with a been-there-done-that attitude, is a veteran maestro who knows his craft and pulled a meaningful concert, conducting with confidence, maturity and poise, and without any unnecessary frills.

Could Frühbeck be the next Houston Symphony music director? As we continue to speculate who that will be, lets remember that the powers that be at the Symphony have stated that all guest conductors could be considered for the prestigious post.

We have dissected the pros and cons of Thomas Dausgaard, James Gaffigan and Juanjo Mena, now let's turn to Frühbeck as our next casualty.

Frühbeckis a man of class and distinction, with a rather impressive list of accolades. Starting with the 2011-2012 season, Frühbeck will serve as the creative director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series and will be the principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2012. He frequents with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and Chicago orchestras, the National Symphony in D.C. and makes an annual appearance at the Tanglewood Music Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

His vast discography includes the complete works of Manuel de Falla and the premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Goya (Menotti composed the Christmas favorite, Amahl and the Night Visitors). 

The pros:

  • Frühbeck is a seasoned musician. His training and work as a composer is a welcomed addition to his bag of tricks, most likely adding an additional dimension to his interpretive abilities. Composers also tend to embrace new music and approaches — and in the past, the Houston Symphony has been criticized for its traditional programming approach.
  • His artistry is impeccable. He allows the music to push and pull organically, selfishly self-indulgent but always moving forward satisfyingly. 
  • His conducting style is clean, precise and direct. His gestures are sufficient, gracious and refined, free of overdramatic and extreme moves. He allows the music to speak for itself and provides ample room for the musicians to add their personal interpretations. 

The cons:

  • Frühbeck is in-demand and I would question whether he would have the time and stamina to devote to contributing to build successful seasons. 
  • I may be practicing ageism, but I'd argue that his image may inhibit the general movement to engage younger audiences. However, if quality of music making is the priority, that concern should be dismissed.

He has my vote. But is he available?