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On The Road

Jesse Jones Hall
01/11/1999 -  
Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d'Ete, Symphonie Fantastique
Susanne Mentzer (mezzo-soprano)
Houston Symphony
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Houston, Texas is the fourth largest city in the United States and boasts a remarkably healthy cultural life (and more songbirds than any other urban center). The city fathers are obsessed with keeping like items together in this land of beef and caffeine and so all of the museums are in one part of town, all of the hospitals are in another (this seems a little dangerous unless one happens to live in that section of this vastly spacious metropolis), all of the flower shops are in one district, and all of the performing arts venues are in the same Lincolnesque Center in the heart of downtown. The Wortham Theater houses the Houston Grand Opera, the Alley Theater features a large repertoire of classical and contemporary plays, and Jones Hall is home to the Houston Symphony. Although clearly a second tier orchestra, this high energy ensemble takes its cue from its departing music director, a dervish of perpetuum mobile who wrings the most out of this fresh faced, youthful and quintessentially American group. Christoph Eschenbach in his tieless black Mandarin jacket and shaved head conducts the proceedings with the electricity of a pop star and, judging from the crowd's reaction, is a big hit here in the hinterlands. Although he is leaving Houston after eleven seasons to assume the music directorship of the North German Radio Orchestra of Hamburg next year, Maestro Eschenbach is still obviously committed to producing the finest quality evening possible with his available forces and is not simply playing out the string like the shameless present conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

No excuses of provincialism are necessary when describing the fine talents of tonight's soloist. Susanne Mentzer has quickly made a fine reputation for herself at the Met in dexterous performances of Cherubino and Dorabella in the newest productions both of which are being televised this season. She navigated the heavy air of Gautier's summer nights with a controlled intensity that burst forth into paroxysms of grief in the highly charged Romantic masterpiece Sur Les Lagunes, a performance which seemed to transform the very atmosphere in this unusual hall with no aisles. The orchestra was suitably restrained throughout and reminded one of the original piano and the contemporary chamber versions of the accompaniment to these quietly perfumed and moonstruck songs.

I have a theory about the Symphonie Fantastique: It is impossible to perform it satisfactorily from beginning to end during the same interpretation. There is no recording (and I have heard well over 100) that consistently captures its amazingly descriptive moods. Either the first and third movements are sensitively played but the ball scene is slow-footed, or the early movements are clumsy and the fourth and fifth are tremendously exciting, or (as in the Boulez version) the waltz is flawless and intimidating but the remainder is colorless. This phenomenon is caused by the disparity in mood of this innovative piece and I am still waiting for that performance which captures all of the colors in this complex palette. Unfortunately Houston's conception of the work is based on effects and relies much too heavily on what the conductor must consider crowd pleasing touches but ultimately cheapens a fine effort from these hard working performers. The overall sound of the strings is dull and this lent an air of boredom to the first movement while the ball was missing the evil swirling quality later borrowed so masterfully by Prokofieff for Cinderella. The small town personality of the orchestra was embarrassingly demonstrated when the oboist walked off the stage at the beginning of the Scene aux Champs to perform the pastorale and then even more awkwardly rejoined the ensemble during their playing of the remainder of the movement. Is there no music student at Rice or Baylor Universities who could have played this part without forcing this amateurish display onto the good people of Houston? The interplay between the onstage oboist and the four tympanists was well done, however, and highlighted this incredible sonic balancing by the first great orchestrator.

The gallop (one could in no way classify this breakneck tempo as a march) to the scaffold presented many problems of articulation for the solo bassoon and even the percussionists could not produce distinct notes, only blurred strokes of arhythmic quality. After being silent for the Nuits and the first three movements of the Fantastique the tinny brass section emerged as if they were in a performance of the Haydn Toy Symphony and added a level of grotesquerie of which not even Berlioz' opium besotted persona could have dreamed. But, true to my theory, the Dream of a Witches' Sabbath was actually a very exciting conclusion to this high energy but erratic performance, with a truly memorable ending emphasizing the percussive sound of the days of the July Monarchy. The audience was stirred to a long standing ovation and seemed charged with an appropriately revolutionary spirit after this sonorous evocation of the battlements. Within the context of a developing musical culture (I kept telling myself) this was an interesting attempt to recreate the grand style of Berlioz and the youthful vigor of the Houston Symphony promises even greater performances in the future. I am not aware of any decision as to a successor to Mr. Eschenbach, but I did notice that one of my picks as a rising star, Paavo Jarvi, is coming soon to guest conduct. Perhaps he can be the maestro to move the Houston forces to the next musical level.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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