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Houston Symphony needs to drop its social party fixation and go big musically: Where are the wows?

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Photo by Bruce Bennett
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There's something intriguing about the tradition of Houston Symphony opening night dinner galas. The accompanying concert isn't treated as an opportunity to bring out the big guns of classical music. Rather, the "classical-lite," one-hour-plus, intermission-less program is just long enough to seem cohesive and just short enough to usher philanthropists in formal wear to a swanky, themed party with a seated dinner and dancing before the witching hour tolls.

But other ensembles go a different way.

While big-budget groups like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra hires Anne-Sophie Mutter for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and the New York Philharmonic opts to have Itzhak Perlman play a series of beloved fiddle tunes, the Houston Symphony chose to focus on the local talent that often is concealed by thicker orchestral textures.

The rationale is that, in Hans Graf's 12th and final season as music director, he wants to highlight principal and section players that contribute something special to the ensemble's dynamic.

Last year Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 contracted singers of national repute like Sasha Cooke, Nathan Berg and Jessica Rivera. The "Vienna Soirée" of 2010 was something that belonged as part of a magical New Year's celebration — but a disappointment. Not because of the program, but because it was performed without delightful Austrian enchantment, something any listener would expect given Graf's provenance. 

I long for the day when a Houston Symphony opening night whets the appetite of a serious listener just as it feeds the hunger of those who desire to see who's wearing who among the cortège of society's heavyweights.

Consider orchestras of a similar budget: The Baltimore Symphony's opening ball is with Renée Fleming; Seattle Symphony, Joshua Bell; St. Louis Symphony, Wynton Marsalis; National Symphony Orchestra, also Anne-Sophie Mutter — all artists of the highest international prestige.

And for Houstonians who feel a healthy rivalry with Dallas, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) upstaged their opening night with an appearance by Yo-Yo Ma, who turned around and was the featured performer at the Menil Collection's "Celebrating Twenty-Five Years" cocktail reception and concert earlier this week.

The matter in question here isn't about not believing in the quality of the artists that lead and fill the sections of the Houston Symphony. Concertmaster Frank Huang can do anything. Principal flutist Aralee Dorough is wicked. Captain William VerMeulen rarely, if ever, cracks a note. Percussionist Matt Strauss was recently selected to participate in an All-Stars Orchestra in New York City.

More precisely, it's the message that the musical portion of the opening night dinner is entertainment rather than serious art-making. Not that arts and entertainment are mutually exclusive, but there is a difference, one that's apparent when you see it, hear it, feel it. 

Perhaps there's method to this madness.

While it's true that other nonprofits have seen financial pitfalls, the Houston Symphony's development and programming strategies, as they relate to fiscal affairs, have kept this nonprofit in the black where others are swimming in a sea of deficit. 

Still, I long for the day when a Houston Symphony opening night whets the appetite of a serious listener just as it feeds the hunger of those who desire to see who's wearing who among the cortège of society's heavyweights. Because people-watching never goes out of style.

"Houston Symphony Opening Night with Boléro," marketed as "The Perfect Evening!" for those who carried onto the black tie social Saturday night, was loosely tied thematically. Scores by Smetana, Debussy, Doppler, Hovhaness, Moszkowski and Ravel forged an easy listening variety show.

 Like how a friend finishes another's sentences, second flutist Judy Dines knows principal flutist Aralee Dorough's musical tendencies intimately.

About the music

Following a string of standing ovations welcoming maestro Graft, Smetana's The Moldau from Má vlast opened the musicaleThe Czech tone poem imagines the bubbling springs that birth the river, drifts into lush Bohemian woods, through riparian landscapes, by a peasant celebration and flows through Prague. The fluvial undercurrents are represented by cascading shapes, first in the flutes, that support a lilting minor melody in triple meter. Such a tune, which was borrowed for the Israel National Anthem, modulates to its parallel major. 

What's difficult here is to resist much rubato in the treatment of the melodic lines at the risk of being out of sync with the constantly moving passages. That was, for the most part, achieved beautifully. Yet it was in the straightforward rustic wedding dance, Bauernhochzeit, where the weight of repeated eighth notes had no chance of sounding as one. Though a strong cadence punctuated the ending, I hoped for better use of silence for suspense and repose.

Clarinetist Thomas LeGrand's take on Debussy's Première rhapsodie suffused the smoky sonorities with flamboyant freedom. His varying gradations between the capriccios opening and the floating strains honed in on what renders French Impressionism a favorite for classical music devotees and newbies.

Like how a friend finishes another's sentences, second flutist Judy Dines knows principal flutist Aralee Dorough's musical tendencies intimately. That's something that happens when you study with the same teacher and perform together for two decades. When they dazzled through the third movement of Doppler's Concerto for Two Flutes in D minor, their identical physical and musical gestures bordered on comical. Breaths were impeccably aligned; the push-and-pull of singing melodies and rapid figures appeared as if played by the same person.

Admittedly, I am not a fan of music by Hovhaness; I think of his style as Yani with a dash of compositional complexity. His Prayer of Saint Gregory for Trumpet and Strings didn't show off what Mark Hughes can bugle on his horn. Violinists Alexandra Adkins and Sophia Silivos surely were having fun in the fourth movement of Moszkowski's Suite for Two Violins and Orchestra in G minor. If only some of those octaves could have been better in tune — that type of writing is unforgiving to even the most minute fluctuations in pitch.

As for the pièce de résistance, Ravel's Boléro can uncover intonation and rhythmical weaknesses within a large ensemble. From Houston Symphony's previous performance, this was no doubt a more accurate and satisfying interpretation. Brian Del Signore on snare drum played with intense concentration, laying the groundwork for others to float their sultry melodies. Finger blips here and there were horribly distracting, though all was forgiven when the horns, piccolos and celeste crafted a charming texture as the tune sang in three diatonic scales simultaneously.

A big bang of an ending was extended with an encore. Nicolò Paganini's Moto Perpetuo put the first violin section to the test and promised to deliver 2,400 notes in four minutes or less. The showpiece, which sounds more difficult than it is, flutters around commonly played scales, arpeggios and sequences. In some level, it quenches anyone's thirst for flash trash, yet only if it's performed well — and together.

Entertaining? Yes. Virtuosic? Sure. Precise performance? Far from it.

That's imperative when the score is projected on a screen above the orchestra. Moreover, having someone that can read music turning pages would have been a lovely addition for those of us who can follow along.

Is that too much to ask?

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