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Brahms, sex and cigarettes: Houston Symphony loses its inhibitions with maestro Christoph Koenig

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Koenig
Maestro Christoph Koenig had a strong showing at this past week's Houston Symphony run...
Koenig
...conducting a virile, girthy and passionate Brahms.
Brahms’ Second Symphony
Could he be the next Houston Symphony music director? 

Upon entering Jones Hall, I feel goose bumps when I am faced with a stage overcrowded with stands, percussion instruments, a harp and row after row after row of chairs awaiting the arrival of 200 plus voices that make up the Houston Symphony Chorus — plus 80 or so for the instrumentalists.

(Am I the only one who feels like I am being "judged" when facing choral forces?)

It takes a village — so they say — when it comes to putting together large orchestral works. One look at the Houston Symphony's roster and administrative army and it's impossible to ignore the many moving parts that essentially are responsible for logistically and artistically morphing a lifeless stage into a musical experience, and many are behind the scenes. 

The same can be said for Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D Major, the crowning work of this past week's Houston Symphony bill.

 If Koenig's Brahms was sex, you'd need a cigarette and a nap afterwards.

Like a jar of dark sticky molasses oozing out of its enclosure — rich, unpredictable, mystifying — the work reveals its shape slowly during which the listener can become immersed in the many macro and micro structures, musical lines, themes and counterpoint that renders Brahms Germanically delicious. The Brahms' symphony has enough horn writing to render it heroic and a healthy dash of upper wind ditties to meld a beam of sunlight to the aural spectrum. 

It's an intricate work any way you look at it. Such is the reason why the romantic composer is the third in classical music's trinity: Bach the father, Beethoven the son and Brahms the Holy Ghost. 

Each hearing is akin to listening to a new work. And this performance also featured many new faces at the Houston Symphony, including one at the podium.

Meet maestro Christoph Koenig. You guessed it, he's German too. 

It was a much different Brahms that I was accustomed to. At first, I responded viscerally, wanting to yell out "What are you doing? Slow down! Relax! Have you ever heard of Brahms?" to the Dresden-born conductor. 

Yet his tempi and gusto were so convincing, so artistically persuasive, that I am now a convert to Koenig's interpretation in marriage with our local orchestra: It was faster in every movement, gritty, sultry, nasty, rug-burn hot. If Koenig's Brahms was sex, you'd need a cigarette and a nap afterwards.

I am not an old dog, yet, but I am open to learning new tricks. Maybe I had it wrong all along, or maybe Brahms lives in such a timeless continuum that multiple interpretations can coexists harmoniously in my head.

Houston Symphony's new chief development officer, David Chambers, was just as moved by the performance as I was. It was one hell of a Brahms.

The conductor search continues

Could Koenig take the baton from Hans Graf? If offered the lead stick, would he say, "I do?"

 His presence created an ideal balance between the formality of an onstage concert and the engaging attitude one needs to attract and retain audiences. One must never overlook the importance of a genuine, humble smile directed at a cheering audience and musicians. That goes a long way.

Executive director Mark Hanson, in passing, said to me, "I just want to see more fresh faces graze our stage." That strategy is apparent and very welcomed. Concert-goers have seen an exponential increase in Houston debuts in both conductors and soloists, an approach that supports the search for when music director Hans Graf retires at the end of the 2012-13 season.

The piercing blue-eyed, dark-hair statuesque maestro — if he lets his five o'clock shadow grow, he can pull off the bad boy look — waved his wand and appended an electric energy that enlivened the musicians. The synergies reverberated. There's no denying there's something to be explored here.

In his principal post, he often melds classical music works with a sprinkle of jazz, hip-hop and films accompanied by live music. Given the recent success of Houston Symphony's screening of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, such a skill and a willingness to use that skill deserves acknowledgement. 

Currently, Koenig serves as the principal conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música in Portugal and music director of the Solistes Européens Luxembourg.

Though the 2000 expansion of the Portuguese orchestra predates his appointment, there are best practices and lessons that can be learned from a group that has recently strengthened in size and increased its international exposure through touring. 

Pros:

  • Koenig is young, but not wet behind the ears. There's a maturity and confidence in his musical ideas without appearing arrogant or inflexible. He likes musical flow but also knows when it's appropriate to pull back, a bit, or a lot.
  • His presence created an ideal balance between the formality of an onstage concert and the engaging attitude one needs to attract and retain audiences. One must never overlook the importance of a genuine, humble smile directed at a cheering audience and musicians. That goes a long way.
  • I'll say this again. The energy, vitality and verve was, at the risk of sounding like a tired cliche, magic. The Houston Symphony — almost all orchestras as a matter of fact — needs a voltage infusion.
  • He doesn't shy away from contemporary works — like David Afkham

Cons:

  • It was a strong first impression. But before making any quick endorsements, it would be wise to see him in different styles. How would he handle a family concert? How about Shostakovich?
  • Understandably, no Houston ties just yet. 

Other stuff:

  • Koenig is a treat to watch; his gestures are contagious. There is exact precision in his conduction without sacrificing musical expression.
  • When he wiggled his tush in the last movement of Brahms in response to to a highly syncopated passage, though I initially lost it, it was a sign of inhibition-free conducting that allowed the Houston Symphony to shine. 

If you missed the concert, you can watch Koenig conduct in the video below:

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