A full house and a happy Huang
A tease & a slight trip: Houston Symphony's opening night leaves one wantingmore
There is something magical and fabulous about opening night.
The glitz, the glam and the excitement of a phenomenal season filled with amazing artists — like Gabriela Montero, Emmanuel Ax, James Gaffigan, Yefim Bronfman, Joshua Bell, Susanne Mentzer and Gil Shaham presenting repertoire ranging from Bartok Miraculous Mandarin, Mahler Symphony No. 10, Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherezade and Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme by Paganini — forces me to fill my iCal with must-go Houston Symphony Orchestra dates, starting with opening night.
As they say, you never get another chance to make a first impression and I consider opening night events teasers that should represent the season’s overall theme, if only a little bit.
To my surprise, the Houston Symphony's "Opening Night: A Vienna Soiree" appeared extremely light considering HSO's programming history. While the Chicago Symphony gets ready to rock Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio, complete with special and theatrics effects narrated by Gerard Depardieu and the New York Philharmonic partners with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a world premier, Strauss Don Juan and Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis, Houston put on what could almost be considered a little pops concert Saturday night.
Or one which was meant to be enjoyed on New Year’s Eve with a little sacher-torte and champagne, especially with the surprise Radetsky March encore.
A program of Johann Strauss Jr. times four (plus encore) — with Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364 for added substance and to musically announce Frank Huang as concertmaster — made sense for Houston's Symphony resident Austrian Hans Graf's 10th season as music director and the symphony's 97th season overall.
But with such a program, one assumes and expects technically flawless execution with exquisite style and inspired musicality.
There was a positive and eclectic vibe in the audience from both those in their black tie attire attending the post-concert dinner and others more comfortably dressed. The symphony is indeed for everyone and I was thrilled to see a full house. Even the obligatory loud-talking-but-thinking-he-is-whispering man's comments were rather charming and made me chuckle.
After a little on-stage confusion, the concert opened with Strauss Jr. Overture to Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Opus 362. A string of rather popular and catchy tunes was brightly performed with delicious poise and stylish perfection. The violin section sailed through sparkling melodic lines with the winds interjecting solo fragments. Most notable, principal oboist Robert Atherholt’s endless musical colors added beautiful depth to an otherwise light work.
With a reduced orchestra, Huang and Wayne Brooks, principal viola, took the stage to tackle Mozart’s Sinfonia, the highlight of the evening. As Colin Davis said, “all the conductor has to do is stand back and try not to get in the way. Mozart is doing all the work.”
Performing Mozart is always challenging, mostly not technically, but stylistically. It requires an educated innocence that has mastered the meaning of western music’s theory and harmony, only to ignore it for the sake of the musical line and character.
Overperform it and it sounds like a romantic mess. Underperform it and you put your audience to sleep. Huang and Brooks’ performance reached a satisfying balance: extreme fun with serious music.
Huang plays with child-like energy while keeping the affect poised and elegant. His sense of timing and placement is aesthetic perfection, allowing the listener to follow his musical line and intention accurately. His tone is rich with harmonic overtones that shine through the accompaniment without forcing.
Originally, the solo viola part appears in D major. The performer is then expected to retune and tighten the strings — a technique called scordatura. The resulting pitches sound a half-step higher and produce a brighter and more present tone. We hear this technique in Camille Saint-Saëns popular Danse Macabre, where open strings are retuned to produce raw and devilish unsettling tritone chords. For the Sinfonia, this is still practiced when performed with original period instruments.
Brooks’ rather rich viola sound does need additional help projecting. His musical approach complemented Huang’s, balancing the dialogue and individuality of each instrument, while creating a homogenous phrase when appropriate. It was obvious that Huang and Brooks were having fun on stage, and the energy was contagious. At times though, I hoped for more interaction with the audience rather than the safety of the music stand.
The somewhat Hungarian Czardas-like second movement began with a rather appropriate moving Andante that seemed to drag as the piece evolved. Any efforts to keep things at a walking pace were futile, but the soloist’s imaginative playing did not suffer. The final presto exhibited playful, elegant and poised bravura worthy of a constant smile and a well-deserved standing ovation.
With Huang now joining the string section, the rest of the evening featured more cutesy works of Johann Strauss Jr.: Perpetuum Mobile, Opus 257, Annen-Polka, Opus 117 and the infamous On the Blue Danube Waltz, Opus 314.
While the Perpetuum was sprinkled with adorable and cartoon-like wind playing including many exposed piccolo and bassoon passages, the polka was unremarkable and missed nuances opportunities, those that make listeners smile beyond the contagious head bobbing and swaying that automatically happen while enjoying this familiar tune.
Aside from an epic and pastoral French horn opening by William VerMeulen, the Blue Danube was rather unimaginative, and as an Austrian, I expected more from Hans Graf.
When considering this was indeed opening night, I wanted moments that made me sigh with surprise, with a sparkle of unexpected creativity or a glimmer of unplanned playfulness. I did get that from watching my favorite bassist, Eric Larson, who exhibits more personality in a bass line than most musicians put in a whole concerto.
I did leave the concert smiling wondering if I should take-up ballroom dancing: A fleeting thought that was immediately dismissed by almost tripping over my own shoe and potentially harming an impeccably dressed lady with big hair.
So the concert served as an hors d'oeuvre, an aperitif, an amuse-bouche for the season. I suppose I was looking for something more substantial. But maybe that was just me. The concert ended with energetic clapping to Radetsky march and a couple of obligatory standing ovations.
What would Houston be without proper southern hospitality?