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Strange Bedfellows

Jones Hall
10/03/2015 -  and October 4*, 2015
Béla Bartók: Divertimento for String Orchestra, sz. 113
Robert Schumann: Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, Op. 112

Yulia Van Doren (soprano), Elizabeth Toy Botero (soprano), Sofia Selowsky (mezzo-soprano), Brian Stucki (tenor), Michael Kelly (bass-baritone), John Gallagher (bass-baritone)
Houston Symphony Chorus, Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Houston Symphony & Chorus

Darkness seems to hide every attempt at levity in Béla Bartók's 1939 Divertimento, while Robert Schumann's oratorio is an unfettered stream of loveliness. The two works made strange bedfellows, but brought about some excellent playing and singing.

Orozco-Estrada swept balletically over the HSO strings as he guided them through Bartók's capricious three-movement work. The string effects the composer explored in his quartets ("snap" pizzicato, glissando) were a bit downplayed in the second and third movements, but the entire performance brought rhythmic accuracy and excitement. The central Molto adagio was the most impressive, emerging from nocturnal shadow and retreating back again after episodes both tormented and pacified. Guest concertmaster Benjamin Peled, visiting from Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led soloists magnificently, culminating in a wonderful rendition of the quasi-cadenza passage near the end of the work.

After intermission, Schumann's rarely-performed Der Rose Pilgefahrt received a lavish production that unfortunately did little to help convince that this is "great" Schumann. Twenty-four musical numbers flow forth with lovely melodies and effective solo, choral, and orchestral writing, but dramatically the piece is mostly flat. The fault lies primarily with Moritz Horn's poetry, which fails to explore the dichotomy of the rose's beauty and danger. Goethe, in "Heidenröslein," is the standard-bearer here.

Yulia Van Doren helmed an impressive cast of vocal soloists, each delivering Schumann's pretty melodies with effortless tone. The orchestra seemed mostly muted, perhaps a result of the soloists being situated at an acoustic disadvantage behind the instrumentalists. The Houston Symphony Chorus sang splendidly, the women lilting gently as a chorus of elves, the men forthright in their second-half interplay with the orchestra's four horns. As if enough weren't happening on stage, tasteful lighting augmented the performance, while three dancers, undoubtedly talented, were oddly distracting. Still, Orozco-Estrada and the HSO should be given credit for exploring less-worn paths.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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