Sublime, Serene Sounds of Spring
03/22/2012 - and March 24*, 25
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major, K. 361 (Gran Partita) – Serenade in G Major, K. 525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik)
Igor Stravinsky: Apollon musagète
Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor)
H. Graf (© Christian Steiner)
Spring made a perfect arrival this past week in Houston, with crystal blue, sunny skies showing off the city's underrated natural beauty. As if taking a cue from Mother Nature, the Houston Symphony treated audiences to works that showed off smaller subsections of the orchestra, allowing us to step into an intimate salon-like world and bask in music of utmost serenity, expertly performed. The concert proved that profundity doesn't require complexity, that sometimes the simplest, most accessible music can create the most memorable concert.
The winds of the orchestra opened the night with a graceful performance of Mozart's Gran Partita. Pride of place easily goes to the oboe playing of Anne Leek, whose delightfully pungent tone suited the work perfectly. She led her colleagues through achingly beautiful, tastefully limned lyrical melodies and, when required, rapid passages tossed off with no mean virtuosity. Hans Graf conveyed a clear vision of the work, with some personal choices including a somewhat upbeat third movement Adagio that eschewed sentimentality and a nicely lilting, Ländler-esque trio in the second Minuet. The other wind instruments responded to Leek and Graf enthusiastically, and we got to see virtually every aspect of their musicality at one point or another. The bassoons were splendid when they finally got their chance to shine in the Allegretto middle of the Romanze, and the horns consistently laid a warm, perfectly blended foundation on which the higher winds could dance. If there was any misfire, it was in the jolting progression of the penultimate movement's variations, which proceeded as individual units instead of as an unfolding, organic whole. The audience clearly enjoyed the performance of this work of heavenly length, showing their approval with applause after every movement.
The color palette shifted after intermission to the strings of the orchestra with a glowing rendition of Stravinsky's Apollo ballet music, easily one of his most radiant, accessible works. Rhythmic accuracy and blend stood out in the performance, and Graf and his players delighted in the occasional acerbic moments that spike the score. Concertmaster Frank Huang led his fellow principals in expertly etched solo passagework.
Eine kleine Nachtmusik, played by a further-reduced string complement, was given a dainty, somewhat twee performance. Graf's tempo for the opening movement was a bit too relaxed, and the iota of drama that does occur in the movement's development was underplayed. The Romance offered up lush string tone and fine phrasing, and the final two movements, while not ending the concert with a bang, certainly left one feeling refreshed and happy to step out into the cool night air.
Marcus Karl Maroney