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Great Expectations

Jones Hall
04/30/2015 -  and May 1*, 3, 2015
Hector Berlioz: Le Corsaire, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Daryl Robinson (organ)
Houston Symphony, Jun Märkl (conductor)

B. Grosvenor

An air of anticipation filled the Houston Symphony's Jones Hall for this round of concerts. A debut by a trending young pianist and consistent media blurbs about the "rafter-shaking Organ Symphony" raised the bar high. Despite expert playing from the orchestra and soloist, Jun Märkl's cool interpretations meant that none of the music really took flight.

This was most apparent in the Berlioz overture, which requires momentum, contrast, and a sensitive balance of recklessness and control. Märkl had too much of the latter, his conducting smooth and balletic, lacking any sense of risk. The HSO strings played their rapid passagework with utmost precision, and the resplendent brass had plenty of presence, but everything seemed a bit reigned in. One writer describes the piece's celebration of "the dangers and excitements of the imagined life of the privateer," but nothing of the sort came across in this mild-mannered performance.

Benjamin Grosvenor has received heavy international praise, and his performance of Beethoven's First Concerto was a delight. His playing capitalized on the Haydn-esque charm of the piece, with excellent voicing, especially in the Largo, and fantastically sparkling trills. He is not a showy pianist, drawing his body as close as possible to the instrument and not engaging in any physical flourishes, or even a winking nod to the audience, unless absolutely at the need of his technique. His response to rapturous applause seemed to be surprise at his own staggering abilities, which was as endearing as it was confusing.

Saint-Saëns' thrilling Organ Symphony closed the program, but here Märkl's conductorial remove combined with the lack of a pipe organ–or even a proper electric organ–in Jones Hall meant that the culmination of the work, and the entire evening, fell flat. A disconnect was apparent from the beginning, with Märkl raising his baton with gusto more appropriate for the lacerating opening gestures of Berlioz's overture, then having to coax the most subtle hushed sounds out of the strings, which they nevertheless delivered. At the Allegro moderato, Märkl didn't clearly communicate his brisk tempo, and the quick figuration of the main theme didn't lock in until the recapitulation. Throughout, important entries weren't given cues from the podium–imitative gestures were sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not, and even the organ's final blasts didn't receive a glance from the podium. The orchestra and organist Daryl Robinson, another trending and substantial young artist, played their hearts out, but the expectations of rafters shaking never came to fruition.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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