Monday, February 05, 2007

Music In Houston

While I was in Houston, I attended a Houston Symphony concert conducted by the orchestra's Music Director, Hans Graf.

The program consisted of Dukas's Prelude to "La Peri" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", Debussy's "Jeux" and Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The cellist was Yo-Yo Ma.

Because of the presence of Yo-Yo Ma, the concert sold out, apparently a very rare occurrence in Houston, where the orchestra is known to suffer from very serious attendance problems.

The Houston Symphony is not an orchestra with a natural command of the French style, and the two Dukas pieces and the Debussy did not come off. The orchestra was much more in its element in the Dvorak, but the Dvorak Cello Concerto amounted to very little because Ma did not bring much to the solo part.

I have always found attending a Yo-Yo Ma concert to be a very jarring experience. Ma emotes shamelessly while he plays, but his facial contortions and histrionics are not mirrored in his playing, which is invariably bland. I spent the entire 45 minutes of the Dvorak Cello Concerto wishing for Heinrich Schiff to enter the concert hall and save the day.

I did not know what to make of the Houston Symphony. It was a fine orchestra, but it seemed to be marking time, waiting for someone to give it a reason to play. I do not think that Hans Graf is the right conductor for this particular orchestra.

During the concert, large video screens provided close-ups of the performers. These video screens are in use for some, but not all, Houston Symphony performances. I ignored the video screens, but apparently some Houston concert-goers like them.

While I was in Houston, I also attended two opera performances offered by the Houston Grand Opera: Gounod's "Faust" and Rossini's "La Cenerentola".

Neither performance was especially good, but I am glad that I attended.

I have a marked weakness for 19th-Century French opera, and I have always believed that "Faust" is a very serious stage work. In Houston, the ballet was cut, but otherwise most of the score was offered.

The performance was minimally adequate, nothing more. The singers more or less met the demands of their parts, but did not proceed beyond meeting the basic requirements. The orchestra and chorus were not good. The physical production--stage direction, stage design, lighting design--was quite poor.

The "Cenerentola" was not much better. The production was imported from Barcelona, and it was a very minimal production, indeed. The Angelina was American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, and she sang cleanly and with much liveliness. However, she lacked charm and sweetness and vulnerability, which made her Cinderella very hard-edged and, ultimately, not very winning. One did not care whether she got her prince or not.

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