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Entries in Houston Symphony (2)


Return of the Maestro

Even seconds before Eschenbach walked on stage I could feel something different in the air. The audience’s anticipation was palpable, and when he finally stepped out people were already beginning to stand, applaud, cheer. The beloved maestro who had spent over a decade melding the Houston Symphony into a world-class orchestra had returned after nearly ten years for one night only, to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. He humbly and silently accepted all of this adulation before turning towards the orchestra and subtly signaling the lead trumpet to begin.

From those first staccato notes the entire performance was electrifying. Every nuance and subtle turn of Mahler’s masterpiece was carefully brought out by both conductor and musicians. Though I had heard that rehearsal time was short, everyone in the orchestra played their absolute best. The strings were more sublime than ever, woodwinds and percussion surpassed their usual high standards, and the brass, which has unfortunately been noticeably sloppy in a few of this season’s performances, played with utmost precision and beautiful, clean tone.

Through the turbulent second movement, the almost upbeat scherzo, and the heartbreakingly beautiful adagio, the audience sat with rapt attention, hardly daring to breathe. I don’t remember a single cough the entire performance, which is unheard-of (and I suppose may simply reflect the spell the music cast on me). During the latter, time almost seemed to stand still for Mahler’s musical love letter to his beloved Alma. Later, as the finale hurtled to its thrilling conclusion I could feel the energy in the room all around me, which finally burst out in a roaring cheer from the crowd as Eschenbach lowered his baton after the final crescendo.

Practically the entire audience was back on its feet again as whistles, hoots, hollers, and loud cries of “Bravo!” filled the air. The loud applause never faltered as the maestro came out for five curtain calls. He seemed grateful yet still somewhat reserved at all this outpouring. He graciously singled out all of the members of the orchestra who had done particularly well in their solos, and repeatedly gestured for the orchestra to rise up and take a well-deserved bow.

On the fifth curtain call, however, the orchestra did something I have never seen before: silent agreement passed between them and they refused to rise. Eschenbach gestured again for them to stand; for a moment he did not understand why just this once they neglected to follow his direction. But by then the musicians themselves were joining the audience in applauding him, even stomping feet on the stage in their appreciation. And now from my fifth row seat I could see some of Eschenbach’s deep emotion break though his professional surface. It was evident just how moved he was at this gesture, and he turned his back on the audience to bow to the musicians of the orchestra, some of whom were no doubt old friends. Then, with one final grateful nod to the crowd, he was gone.

Though I witnessed several great performances by the symphony during the 2005-2006 season when I worked for them, and was more recently wowed by the Symphony under Mark Wigglesworth this past year, this concert was probably their greatest in years. I confess it may not have been a perfect performance, but it was truly a great one. Under Eschenbach’s direction, the Houston Symphony truly lived up to its potential as a world-class orchestra and it was a wonder to behold.

Your friend in music,



Support Your Local Symphony!

The Houston Symphony is winding down another successful season this month, but it turns out they've saved some of the best for last. My wife and I just returned from a heart-wrenching performance of Mahler's tenth symphony conducted by music director Hans Graf. Sadly it's not a piece that gets performed all that often, but it should be. If you've got an hour and a half free Sunday afternoon at 2:30 it's not too late to catch the last performance of it.

Their previous subscription concert featured an absolutely dynamite program: Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky and Stravinsky's Firebird with guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth. He was on fire all night, lending extra energy to exciting pieces that really benefitted from it. (I really hope the Symphony considers him as a successor to Graf as the next season is the maestro's last.) The orchestra, joined by the chorus in Alexander Nevsky, gave a perfect performance which I considered to be the highlight of the season; every musician was fully invested in the music.

I must make a confession: I wasn't expecting to be that impressed. A few years back while working for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I attended a concert of Nevsky (the full film score version, which I happen to prefer to the composer-excerpted "Cantata" of highlights presented by the Houston Symphony). The conductor was then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and the venue was the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the orchestra joined by the famed L.A. Master Chorale. It was an incredible performance, done to a projection of Eisenstein's film to fully appreciate the art of writing music to accompany it. I never thought I'd hear a performance of the music that could touch that one, but I was wrong -- the Symphony under Wigglesworth blew me away!

Even though money is tight, my wife and I were so impressed that we were inspired to make a donation to the symphony then and there. If you value symphonic music in Houston, you should consider doing the same: If the Symphony reaches a pre-set goal by the end of this month to increase their annual fund, The Houston Endowment will give them an additional MILLION dollars, which will go a long way towards making a lot of important programs stronger, particularly their educational outreach to children. There are actually two goals they have to meet -- one is a straight dollar amount, but the other is actually to increase the number of individual donors, so even if you can only afford to send them five bucks, you'll really be helping them out! Here's some further info on the Symphony website.

I really hope they make their goal because the Symphony really deserves some love. The Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet are considered among the best in the country, but the Symphony doesn't really get the same kind of attention outside Texas. Personally I think a new hall would make a big difference if they can get the financial support. Jones Hall has a lot of beauty and it's an important cultural landmark, but I guess I'm just a little spoiled by all those years of attending concerts in L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the best acoustic spaces in the world. When the L.A. Phil moved its home from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (comparable to Jones Hall acoustically) to the new hall upon its completion in 2003, it greatly increased their prominence and respect in the world classical scene. A wonderful orchestra deserves a wonderful concert space, and it is my great wish that Houston arts supporters will make that a priority in the coming decade.

Hopefully you can make it to a concert this month and witness firsthand the passion of our fine Houston Symphony, either the remaining Sunday matinee for Mahler 10 or the following three concerts next weekend which close out the season, featuring Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2. Even if you can't do it in person, I hope you'll consider helping the Symphony reach their goal this month. I had the great honor of working with them during the 2005-2006 season, and can personally vouch that the gang there really loves and believes in what they do, from Hans Graf and the orchestra members to the wonderful staff behind the scenes and volunteers from the general public. They really deserve whatever extra support we can give them.

Your friend in music and fellow Symphomaniac,