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Colorful Program Showcases Houston Symphony’s Depth

Jones Hall
04/02/2009 -  and April 4, 5
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
John Williams: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra - Celebration Fanfare
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

William VerMeulen (horn)
Houston Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor)

William VerMeulen (© Eric Arbiter)

The program that Peter Oundjian concocted for his appearance this season with the Houston Symphony was one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve heard the orchestra give. Four extremely different works were presented in four different ways, and the audience got to see the tremendous depth of the orchestra’s talent, with music that highlighted every section and nearly every soloist within the orchestra.

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was an effective opening to the concert, and Mr. Oundjian—formerly of the Tokyo String Quartet—knew how to coerce a seemingly endless variety of shades of string color from the ensemble. In a brilliant stroke of staging, the second string orchestra, reduced in number to nine players, was placed at the back of the stage on a riser, providing enormous contrast with the main, full-sized string orchestra placed in its normal position. From afar, the smaller orchestra tempered its vibrato beautifully, emphasizing the inherent ethereal qualities of the piece. Oundjian was extremely convincing and had superb control over the ensemble as he negotiated between constantly in-flux tempos that always seemed organic, never contrived. I would have loved a slightly more articulate bowing from the massed forces at the work’s climax, but that is a minor complaint to a masterful and truly different rendering of this piece. The spell was unfortunately broken at the end, however, when a handful of audience members began applauding prematurely.

The two John Williams pieces on the concert were a mixed bag. In his Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, Williams draws from the edgier moments of his film scores and constructs an engrossing, dramatic five-movement structure. The composer describes the work as “evoking images of rural life in medieval times”, from the tolling of morning church bells in the opening movement, “Angelus” to the sunset serenade of the final “Nocturne”. These poetic titles, the slow-fast-slow-fast-slow pacing of the movements, and the passing references to trees evoke many similarities with Williams’ work for bassoon and orchestra, Five Sacred Trees, another of the composer’s finest concert pieces. Oundjian and soloist William VerMeulen introduced the work from the stage, warning the audience that there would be “no Harry Potter”. While this wasn’t entirely true, it was good for them to prepare the audience for a slightly different side of John Williams’ style.

VerMeulen played the extremely difficult work with ease. The variety of colors he produced and virtuosic figuration he achieved on the horn was awe-inspiring and on par with a world-class string player. The orchestra provided excellent support, most notably in the third movement “Pastorale”, where the large ensemble was pared down, with extended double-reed solos accompanying the horn writing. The fourth movement, “The Hunt”, included the most thrilling horn and orchestral writing, including great moments of solo versus orchestra repartee and spine-tingling climaxes when the four orchestral horns joined the soloist in blazing harmony. The dramatic cadenza at the movement’s end was a virtual catalogue of tricks on the horn, effectively structured by the composer and flawlessly realized by the soloist. After the full orchestra reentered to end the movement with a bang, the fifth movement “Nocturne” seemed a bit of a letdown. Here Williams resorted to a “closing credit” sound world. The performance was lovely, with VerMeulen floating effortlessly above the lush string accompaniment, but it all seemed a bit perfunctory. The closing moments included an awkward, too-loud celesta solo that was more startling than “nocturnal”. Oundjian proved a natural accompanist, his experience as a chamber musician reflected in his uncanny ability to predict and follow his soloist’s whims. The arsenal of percussion instruments at times overbalanced both soloist and orchestra.

The Celebration Fanfare, an occasional piece originally written for the city of Houston’s sesquicentennial in 1986, contains several great colors but lapses into gratuitousness in the end. The HSO’s brass, percussion and harp played the short work with gusto and thrilling accuracy.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is so densely packed with wonderful melodies, ingenious orchestration and capricious moodiness that I find it almost as exhausting to listen to as it surely is to play. In the performance, the orchestra met every technical challenge of the piece. Saxophonist Valerie Vidal stood out in the first movement for her tasteful phrasing and beautiful tone, and the orchestra’s brass section was spectacular throughout. Oundjian was again an expert leader, coercing subtle tempo and timbre changes from the orchestra that made even some of the most complicated moments in the score seem as intimately connected as a string quartet, especially in the dizzying second movement waltz. Even the slightly precarious lapse of ensemble precision near the work’s end, where Rachmaninoff achieves stunningly sophisticated rhythmic layering, only added to the excitement. There was never a true loss of control, but more a sense of abandon in the playing. One oddity was the way the piece was introduced, via a prerecorded video segment of Mr. Oundjian discussing why he programmed the piece and lauding Houston’s orchestra. What he had to say was interesting, but it was a bit confusing that it was done on a recording video when the “real thing” was standing backstage.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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