Conductor Search

Too many firsts put Juanjo Mena behind in the race to fill the Houston Symphony's big baton

Too many firsts put Juanjo Mena behind in the race to fill the Houston Symphony's big baton

Juanjo Mena
Juanjo Mena
Gabriela Montero
Gabriela Montero was great, but she and Mena never seemed to completely be in sync.
Juanjo Mena
Juanjo Mena Courtesy photo
Juanjo Mena
Gabriela Montero
Juanjo Mena

I really wanted to love this weekend's Houston Symphony concert and conductor Juanjo Mena.

It had everything, on paper. A delicious opening with the exoticism of Turina, whose picturesque use of the Phrygian major mode is complemented by a healthy dose of double reed writing, Gabriela Montero, a piano virtuoso with bewildering classical improvisational skills making her Houston debut, a diverse repertoire and a new conductor gracing Houston Symphony's stage.

But something was missing.

Maestro Mena, recently appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, visited Houston for the first time to lead the Symphony in a program that included Joaquín Turina’s Danzas Fantásticas, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor.

“There is a warmth to the people of Houston that’s quite different,” Mena said. “My short stay has primarily consisted of travels from the Magnolia Hotel, Jones Hall and interviews, but there is a beautiful welcoming hospitality, I feel.”

With the imminent retirement of Hans Graf as music director at the end of the 2012-2013 season, Symphony officials have clued listeners into the fact that guest conductors are fair game and could be considered for the position. This is the third article of the series that hopes to start a conversation: What does the Symphony need and who could fulfill it?

Could Mena be next?

Following a spectacular concert which included a brilliant and synergetic collaboration of conductor James Gaffigan and pianist Jonathan Biss, there was a je ne sais quoi absent in Mena's work with Montero and the Symphony.

Though Mena comes with a myriad of engagements and accolades from top American and European orchestras — including Baltimore Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre National de France, Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala and Orchestre National de Lyon — I muse that it was a cache of firsts that swayed the performance from reaching artistic climax: a first appearance for Mena, a debut by Montero and their first collaboration.

I expected more from a Spaniard interpreting Turina, in the same way that I seek Graf’s interpretation of Mozart or anything Wien (like the opening of the 2010-2011 season: "A Viena Soiree"). There was imaginative wind playing from the associate principals (oboist Anne Leek rocked my world) but Mena’s aesthetic ideas were not fully realized, often lacking in contrast, though instrumental colors were rich despite the somewhat challenging orchestration.

Montero’s performance was a technical tour de force and Mena masterfully arbitrated between her unrestrained abilities and the orchestra. But she was often buried in the rich orchestral textures, a responsibility that stays with the conductor. 

Finishing with Mozart may have proved anticlimactic. Whether that is a programming request from Mena or in discussions with Houston Symphony’s senior director of artistic planning, Aurelie Desmarais, we don’t know. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite or something by Bartok would have been appropriate.

The pros:

  • While sipping on a Stella Artois post-concert, Mena appeared personable, approachable and stylishly sophisticated with a down to earth sense of humor. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, a demeanor necessary as symphony orchestras, in general, can easily (and wrongfully) be typecast as the iconic impenetrable ivory tower.
  • Mena’s different approach could be good for the Symphony, adding a different aesthetic to the orchestra's sound spectrum.

The cons:

  • Mena, though familiar with the challenges of running at non-profit arts organization here, where funding primarily comes through private sources rather than relying heavily on government grants, is not a name people recognize in Houston. It would be preferable to find someone with some established roots in the city.
  • The Houston Symphony’s and Mena’s concept of sound and style do not quite gel, yet. Efforts to pull gritty orchestral colors — the exoticism needed to perform Turina — were commendable, but not fully achieved.

The other stuff:

  • Mena clearly has great fresh ideas and loves to play with color and placement. But he did not take advantage of pacing and silence to the degree that Thomas Dausgaard, not allowing sound and affect to dissipate while audiences emotionally rest between segments, whether phrases, pauses or movements. Silence is part of music making and must be respected.
  • His conducting style lacks precise detail. A master of communicating large musical ideas, it was the technical aspects of being on the podium that at times threw time sensitive musical elements off kilter. 
  • I did observe seizure-like moves which also included face shaking inciting major cheek vibrations, at times, almost making Mena look like a Torero without his sword. I liked it.

The program may not have been ideal to judge the conductor's abilities, especially as the spotlight was mostly on Montero and her off the cuff improv based on a theme sung by an audience member. I have been following her career for a while. Her prodigious abilities border on the divine, but I did find her Rachmaninoff predictable and unimaginative. 

I would love to see Mena again. Perhaps some Mahler? Brahms?