In anticipation of Christoph Eschenbach's first downbeat, there was an air of feverish excitement I haven't felt before at Jones Hall, evident by the confabulation in the long lines formed outside by concert goers standing by to claim their tickets for Tuesday night's sold-out performance.
The maestro hadn't stepped on the Houston Symphony podium since 2002 when he conducted Berlioz's Harold en Italie and Le Carnaval Romain and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 "Italian." As it was shortly after the death of Michael Hammond, National Endowment of the Arts director and former dean at the Shepherd School of Music, Berlioz's Overture to Benvenuto Cellini was replaced with Barber's soulful Adagio in his memory that night.
The lapse was just too long for classical music junkies and those with fond memories of when Eschenbach was Houston Symphony's music director for 11 years (1988 to 1999).
After Eschenbach led the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra featuring piano virtuoso Lang Lang in April 2010, it became evident that a Houston Symphony engagement was long overdue. The audience response was similar at this one-night concert. Just before the German-born (what is now Wroclaw, Poland) director strode on stage, guests were already on their feet, cheering.
Eschenbach, in his usual black-on-black ensemble, emerged as slim, fit, yet larger than life, appearing much younger than 71 years of age.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, Mahler symphonies are worth a thousand pictures. Music saved Eschenbach, just like Mahler's Symphony No. 5 awakens joy and triumph.
The case for Mahler
With limited rehearsal time, there was only one piece that was appropriate for what was verging on a decade-long absence: Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5. During his tenure in the Bayou City, the monumental 1902 symphony, revised in 1911, was a signature work for Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony. It also crowned many performances during his tour, including in Vienna, where Mahler was principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1898 to 1901.
This year also commemorates the composer's centennial death anniversary.
It is said the Mahler was disappointed at the premiere and shared a desire to conduct the first performance 50 years posthumously. He felt his composition was misunderstood. Perhaps it is Eschenbach's painful and traumatic childhood — he lost his mother at birth and his father as part of a Nazi punishment — leaving him mute for a year, that endows him the prowess to interpret Mahler's highly demonstrative works. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Mahler symphonies are worth a thousand pictures.
Music saved Eschenbach, just like Mahler's Symphony No. 5 awakens joy and triumph moving from the somber, foreboding key of C-sharp minor of the opening Trauermarsch (Funeral March) to the pastorally jubilant D major in the Scherzo and Rondo-Finale.
Mahler would have been beaming with pride at the performance, like everyone involved with the Houston Symphony, past and present, was on this night.
Conducting without a score and using a gesture invisible from most audience members, Eschenbach signaled principal trumpet Mark Hughes to begin with the ominous triplet motif, a nod to Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, giving way to the militant opening.
With guillotine-like precision, a dramatic vertical baton movement summoned the rest of the orchestra to respond in kind, affixing a menacing and reverberant wall of sound.
Eschenbach earned a well-deserved and immediate standing ovation and five curtain calls.
But it was in the slight hesitations, stalling somewhat on pick-up notes, where music was made, shaping each and every sentimental phrase across the pages of the score. No note was passed over as less important. Everything had deliberate meaning.
Mahler's first movement is a journey in orchestral color and Eschenbach's approach gave prominence to the constant shifting of instrumental couplings either connecting, adding or interrupting a melodic fragment. Melodies soared with intent, ending with a decisive and pizzicato in unison.
The second movement opened with a strong and unruly tempest, just like Eschenbach's movements, arms oscillating from side to side in virile semi-circular motion. Magic was made in the cello soli, mingling elements of yearning appoggiaturas with just enough brightness when deemed harmonically appropriate. Continuing with apocalyptic whirlwind, the skies cleared to allow for a moment of quieter introspection at its conclusion.
The third movement Scherzo shifts the path to a more carefree pastoral Ländler. The horn section shined, adapting to the quick changes in affect and achieving a seamless blend.
It was impossible not to shed a tear in the Adagietto, Mahler's best known composition. It is often heard in isolation, though in context, it is much more emotionally powerful. A descending harp figure gives slight forward motion to a delicate and subtle broadening strings, finding repose in delayed melodic resolutions. I can't recall a time when the string section sounded so sublime, so gorgeous, so exquisite.
In the closing movement, the horn, bassoon and oboe broke the silence and laid the foundation for the bucolic, cheerful and playful musical ride. D major, after all, is the happiest of all keys, the key of glory according to baroque beliefs.
Eschenbach demands musicians be in constant contact and stay attuned to his every nuance. The performance was by no means technically perfect, perhaps due to the endurance required to master Mahler. But when artistic brilliance takes center stage, nothing else matters.
And that's why Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony earned a well-deserved and immediate standing ovation and five curtain calls.
If only the Houston Symphony could find someone like Eschenbach post Hans Graf.