With a seven-note thrust that metaphorically slapped audiences across the face, Richard Strauss' Don Juan sounded the official launch of the Houston Symphony's centennial season Saturday night at Jones Hall.
The tone poem is the type of balls-to-the-wall oeuvre that's not customarily used as an overture, the many knotty riffs, soaring melodies and tender moments rendering the story of love, conquest and doom a thrilling joy ride for listeners and performers. But in a show of audacious defiance, the fearless execution led by maestro Juanjo Mena included a magical oboe theme performed by Jonathan Fischer plus artillery-like rhythmic accuracy that deserved its own standing "O" — though the piece didn't get one.
Too early into the program? Perhaps.
Houston audiences tend to be unduly generous with offering props, but this lukewarm reception made one question whether concert goers had any idea of the musical foreplay that had just transpired on the flower-clad stage.
Then again, 18 minutes into the soiree, the headliner of the concert-cum-gala, Renée Fleming, hadn't even sung a single note.
The beautifully crafted, 90-minute, intermission-less performance that honored Mike Stude, Janice Barrow, the Houston Texans and Janice and Robert McNair was a shift from prior stale Houston Symphony opening nights. This was a main event, electrified by the enthusiasm of a born-again ensemble that's looking to the future — not the past.
Such energy was best described in a Facebook post written by principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith, who eight years ago uprooted his life as a member of the New York Philharmonic to join the Houston Symphony, then a nonprofit faced with countless economic and logistical challenges.
. . . we've been fortunate to have good leadership during my time that understands that the organization is not made up of warring interests, but that we all rise or fall together. And so tonight, there is truly no place I'd rather be in the world than onstage with my extraordinary colleagues, representing all of our organization, presenting Renée Fleming and great music for our patrons and our city.
The attitude of gratitude reverberated in the music-making. If this conviction prevails for the remainder of the storied 100th anniversary season, Houstonians are in for a memorable year of classical music.
It's Fleming's ability to bewitch your consciousness with honest musicality — not what she's doing to appear musical — that merits the well-deserved hype.
As for the diva of the night, Fleming's appearance in Houston was long overdue.
The People's Diva
Each of Fleming's three sets — divided into German, Italian/French and American — were introduced by an appropriately themed instrumental showpiece that cleared space for the orchestra to burst with artistry, including Verdi's overture to Nabucodonosor and Bernstein's Divertimento for Orchestra. After all, this was Houston Symphony's opening night and not a voice recital.
There are no excessively dramatic frills in Fleming's melodies. The magic of the opera star lies in her finesse in delivering sumptuous, organic musical lines that are as natural as humans yearning for connection. Her plush and focused vocal timber that emerges from deep within her physique may be unmistakably hers, but it's her ability to bewitch your consciousness with honest musicality that merits the well-deserved hype.
Several of the selections were taken from her newest album, Guilty Pleasures, set to release on Sept. 17. Favorites of the evening were Puccini's lilting "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi, a flirtatious rendition of Delibes' Les filles de Cadix and the gorgeous Ombra di Nube by Licinio Refice.
What's not to love about "Somewhere" and "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story? Smiles abounded when the singer swayed in character, charming fans into twinkling with delight.
If there was one unsung hero — at least as it pertains to the printed program — it was Todd Frazier, a Houston-based composer who founded the American Festival for the Arts and now manages The Methodist Hospital Center for Performing Arts Medicine. Frazier penned two of the four encores, which included two Americana works that add substance to an insufficient collection of repertoire that nods to national spirit.
From the stage, Fleming acknowledged Frazier's contributions of Thomas Jefferson: The Making of America and "Wild Horses." An excerpt of the former, "We Hold These Truths," dared concertmaster Frank Huang to summon his inner country and fiddle toe-tapping licks in music that told the story of Jefferson's and Benjamin Franklin's love affair with the violin. The latter, an arrangement of a folk song by Jean Ritchie, was pure, rowdy, Texas fun.
As guests exited Jones Hall, ushers presented them with a commemorative placard as a memento of the historic tuneful bash.
Once outside, raucous entertainment from the Brazilian Festival, construction in progress and the havoc that emerged from a bevy of locals congregating from other gatherings reminded everyone that Houston is one exciting city to call home.