in C major for Recorder,
Strings and Continuo RV 444
in C major for Recorder,
Strings and Continuo RV 443
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap
Meyerson Symphony Center
March 1, 2013
It was an interesting
weekend. On Friday night, I heard the Dallas Symphony under its music director
Jaap van Zweden performing Mahler’s massive Sixth Symphony at the Meyerson SymphonyCenter in preparation for its European tour. The next day I drove 250 miles
down I-45 to hear a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, one of the
last major concerts to be given by Hans Graf as music director of the Houston
These two fine
performances reminded me that week in and week out, Texas offers some of the
most exciting music-making in the country.
In Dallas, whereas most
of the evening was taken up with Mahler’s huge Symphony No. 6, which calls for
an orchestra of about 120 players, Maestro van Zweden chose to open the concert
with two very small pieces at the other extreme of the orchestral spectrum.
The contrast was
startling and effective, and it brought to the fore Erik Bosgraaf (photo: right), a thirty-two
year old Dutch artist - one of the most remarkable recorder virtuosos I have
ever heard - who seems to have fingers as thin as toothpicks. How else to
explain how he could rattle off the most difficult passages at lightning speed,
on a tiny ‘sopranino’ recorder? How on earth did he find room on the instrument
for all his fingers? Admittedly, he is a tall man and his height made the
miniature instrument seem even smaller, but it was still a feat to behold. Van
Zweden and the strings of the DSO accompanied as if to the manner born, with
grace and accuracy.
Mahler's Massive 6th Symphony in Full Color!
After intermission we
got to the main business of the evening: Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, dating from
1903-06. Due to its size and difficulty, the piece was not given its American
premiere until 1947.
Mahler was of two
minds as to the order of the four movements. The first time he conducted it
with the scherzo second and the slow movement third, but later decided they
should be reversed. He was also unclear about the instrument that should make the
“hammer blow” sounds in the last movement, and left the number of blows to be
For this Dallas
performance, the orchestra followed the lead of the Chicago Symphony, one of
whose members had created a wooden box using techniques borrowed from speaker
design. The DSO had one constructed by the same maker and used it in the
performance I heard.
percussionist Doug Howard (photo: right) did the “hammer” honors with a dash of theatricality,
getting to his feet a page or so before the blows are to be struck, then raising
the huge hammer over his head and bringing it down on the box with all the
authority he could muster. He wore gloves, presumably to cushion his hands and
wrists, which made him look a little like an executioner! And how many hammer
blows were there? Van Zweden decided that two were sufficient, whereas some
conductors prefer three. No matter; one could argue that this issue is only
significant if one gives these blows an excessively autobiographical
Maestro van Zweden had
already programmed the Mahler Sixth in Dallas a few seasons back and those
performances were outstanding. It made very good sense to bring the piece back
for further refinement and to show the results to Europe on the forthcoming
tour; moreover, there is no doubt that the DSO is a better orchestra than it
was a few years ago, thanks to major changes in personnel and forceful work by
van Zweden on the podium.
From the opening bars
of the first movement, van Zweden made it clear that the edgy intensity of the
music was going to be fully realized. He and his players were totally involved
and drove the music inexorably forward. There are moments of relaxation in the
movement as well, and these were played with tenderness and beauty. The horn
solos were very well executed by guest principal Gail Williams, formerly of the
Chicago Symphony. The cowbells, unfortunately, were all but inaudible. The
Andante moderato was sublime from beginning to end, with exquisite soft playing
from the violins. The last movement was shattering in its ferocity.
All in all, a great
triumph for van Zweden and the DSO in Dallas, and if the tour concerts come
anywhere close to this standard, European audiences are in for something
Standing Ovation for Graf/HSO Wozzeck!
Katherine Ciesinski: Margaret
Houston Symphony Orchestra/Hans Graf
March 2, 2013
While both the Dallas
Symphony and the Houston Symphony
(HSO) have had financial difficulties in recent years,
each organization has pulled itself together and emerged with even stronger
artistic credentials. The Eschenbach years (1988-1999) were a kind of 'Golden
Age' for the Houston Symphony and after he left the orchestra struggled both
financially and artistically; music director Hans Graf (above: left) toughed it out, however, demonstrating true leadership and mastery of a wide
Last week, Graf
conducted a semi-staged performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Musically, the results
were at the highest level, with German soprano Anne Schwanewilms (photo: right) particularly
impressive as Marie. The orchestra had been meticulously prepared and one often
heard details lost in opera house productions.
presentation, on the other hand, was disappointing. For
these performances in Jones Hall, the orchestra was pushed to the rear of the
stage to create a playing area in front for the singers, the direction of whose
movements was little more than perfunctory.
This task had been
assigned to Kristin L. Johnson, the HSO’s Director of Operations and
Production, who seemed to have neither the imagination nor the skills to do the
assignment justice. Statements in the printed materials accompanying the
program offered the opinion that a concert performance of Wozzeck allows
audience members to use their imagination more freely. That said, this opera nevertheless
cries out for a vivid realization of theatrical elements; costumes, set pieces,
lighting and stage direction that illuminates the story all have important
roles to play in bringing Wozzeck to life, in a staged “concert” version as
much as in a fully staged production.
Perhaps this Houston
Wozzeck suffered from budget constraints, with more money going into orchestra
rehearsal than to staging. Understandable - but in my opinion, the emotional
impact of the piece was unfortunately undermined not by dollars, but by choices,
such as somewhat mindless staging, and inattention to costuming and set pieces.
Multi-media effects may have been beyond the budget, but could well have
enhanced this presentation.
aside, The Houston Symphony deserves credit for programming a complete Wozzeck
in any form whatsoever. This work is still a tough sell for most symphony
audiences, which makes this HSO presentation an anomaly, perhaps, considering
that the performance I attended appeared virtually sold out and very few
patrons left the hall until it was over. The HSO also went the extra mile in
preparing promotional materials for Wozzeck; the video and the booklet were
both truly illuminating.
Maestro Graf is
coming to the end of his last season as music director of the Houston Symphony
– he has been here 12 years – but he will return in future seasons as conductor
Next season the
orchestra will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Former music
director Christoph Eschenbach will return for two performances of Mahler’s
Symphony No. 8 in May, 2014. Music Director Designate Andres Orozco-Estrada
will lead four programs.