Another guest conductor treaded onto the Houston Symphony's podium last weekend at Jones Hall. Making his symphony debut was Gilbert Varga, who's more in-demand overseas than in the United States, along with cellist (and heartthrob) Daniel Müller-Schott.
Their engagement is part of a larger movement by the symphony to bring in new faces, new sounds, new artists to an audience hungry for something different.
A guest conductor also means it's time to pay attention, as all and any of them could be considered for the big post once music director Hans Graf retires at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. We've cross-examined Juanjo Mena, Thomas Dausgaard, David Afkham and James Gaffigan and now we turn to the London-born maestro.
This is what went down.
The Thursday night program I attended was robust, exploring two of classical music greats who contributed significantly to the aesthetic development of Western art music, Joseph Haydn and Maurice Ravel.
An exceptional collaboration with Haydn
Colloquially, he was nicknamed Papa Haydn by his contemporaries — including the younger Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — partly due to three decades of dedication to the Eszterházy court, Hungary's Versailles, and caring for his musicians, often mediating for those who had acted mischievously. The field owes the string quartet and symphonic structures to the composer.
The Symphony No. 49 in F Minor "La Passione" hails from Haydn's early years — he was 36 — and sits relatively in the middle of his impressive opus of 106 symphonies. Written during the Kapellmeister's Sturm und Drang period (literally storm and stress), the work exhibits extremes in artistic affect. Fifteen years later, the Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major gives prominence to the composer's lighter, cheerful persona. Less popular than the seemingly more virtuosic Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, there's a myriad of arduous passages that when executed up to par, they appear off the cuff.
How would maestro Varga, the son of Hungarian violinist Tibor Varga, lead works that were written for the noble House of Esterházy?
The concert was off to a beautiful start. The reduced orchestra, anchored around the harpsichord, performed with finesse and expensive posh elegance. Appoggiaturas were richly yearning, the silky violins soared — though too many string section leaps did not always start or land on pitch — slurs and articulations were clearly outlined and Varga settled on an honest Adagio tempo: Churning forward yet still lugubrious.
The faster movements exuded period bravura during which quick passages flowed with musicality. Harmonic progressions and sequences — what gives the work its inner drive and excitement — materialized coherently, lucidly.
With Haydn, Varga and the Symphony were exceptional collaborators.
Thirty-five-year-old German soloist Müller-Schott might as well be a veteran of the classical music scene. He has 16 recordings under his bow — the latest of which is Britten's Cello Suites — and won the Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians at age 15. He's worked with artists like Anne-Sophie Mutter, André Previn, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink and Sir Neville Marriner. Audiences welcomed his electric musicianship and his very shinny, almost blinding, "Ex Shapiro" Matteo Goffriller cello from Venice circa 1727 with gusto.
Could he be the Joshua Bell of the younger generation?
Sitting on a platform, Müller-Schott was literally moved by the tune's affect, dancing in his chair in anticipation — and the audience's own — of the first note. Bowing with assertive, confident gestures, his huge sound emerged as both deeply resonant and sparkling with glossy harmonics. It pierced through the orchestra, even during rapid passages that shifted from triplet to 16th note subdivisions.
If there was one highlight, it was the second movement Adagio. Altering colors during seamlessly connected cantando phrases showed off Haydn's inherently classic melody. Varga stayed in the background, as he should, and kept the accompaniment moving and supporting Müller-Schott. Earning an encore, the cellist transitioned the program appropriately by performing Ravel's Piece en form de Habanera. No piano, no orchestra. Just naked cello.
A rocky Ravel
Ravel, along with Claude Debussy, holds our definition of Impressionism as it manifests in music. The elasticity that works of this period require for successful performance would test Varga's otherwise straight forward conducting style.
Despite Varga's disregard for harmonic and melodic exoticisms, giving no time nor courtesy to bring these out — the musicians found a way to render the Suite from Ma mère l'oye special, innocent with child-like wonderment. Flute solos hinted at what was to come with Daphnis et Chloé, English horn and clarinet fragments were deliciously sentimental and fantastical piccolo tidbits added to a fairytale ambiance, like visible brushstrokes on a canvass.
But when it came to the big piece, Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, it was an all-out war between Varga's out of control opening tempi and the musicians attempt at getting through all the noodles that juxtapose a murmuring, bubbling, wispy texture to the Lever du jour.
There was no push nor pull. There was no breathing room. There was no sense of repose. That's not French. That je ne sais quoi was missing.
Watching him conduct ahead of the music, I understood the maestro's desire to flow through musical lines and gestures. But bulldozing Ravel's carefully written allusion borders on disrespectful to the composer and to the musicians.
If it weren't for principal flutist Aralee Dorough's thoughtful and voluptuous solo in the Pantomime, a honky alto flute, an obnoxious — and I mean that in the highest of possible regards — E-flat clarinet, a virile brass section and a bang of an ending — the kind where you almost imagine the orchestra spontaneously combust — Ravel's chef-d'œuvre would have been a complete utter disappointment.
I couldn't help wishing that Hannu Lintu, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos or James Gaffigan could be summoned to take over.
That was surprising given that Vargas has had impeccable training, studying under the cat's meow of the conducting world: Franco Ferrara, Sergiu Celibidache and Charles Bruck. On record, he's directed both Ravel Piano Concertos and his Alborada Del Gracioso, again the G Major Piano Concerto and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor alongside pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, among a few others. He hasn't recorded larger symphonic works.
Could Vargo be the next maestro?
- Varga is sophisticated and seemingly amicable. From chatting with other administrators, his happy-go-lucky attitude will go very far in an environment that's generally stressful and ladened with more than its share of staff turnover. He's clearly enjoying himself in the podium, and that joy, is contagious.
- Three of the four pieces were performed by memory. His command of the scores is impressive, never missing to cue an entrance or to physically embody a musical phrase.
- Personal questions of musical interpretation aside, I have heard the Houston Symphony perform with the type of resilience and flexibility amiss in Daphnis. I have to wonder if the musicians would be artistically satisfied with his straightforward, play-through-the-music modus operandi. Would they gel?
- As a newcomer to Houston's music scene, he doesn't have strong local ties. Without a doubt, with time, that's something that can be nurtured.
- He has a case of "Beethoven hair," which isn't bad. Put a wig on him and he can play the perfect dead white composer. That would be popular for family concerts and costume galas, which in Houston, we have our fair share.
- His conducting style is fun to watch. Whether his movement resembles picking fleas from a monkey's head, an aggressive fly swat or a sur la pointe coquette frolic, he retains an elegance despite anything that happens on stage.