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Making Waves

Jones Hall
04/11/2013 -  and April 13, 14, 2013
Felix Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in D minor – Capriccio Brillant in B Minor, Op. 22
Fritz Kreisler: Violin Concerto after Paganini
Claude Debussy: La Mer

Benjamin Schmid (violin), Ariane Haering (piano)
Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor)

B. Schmid (© Julia Wesely)

Virtuosity for virtuosity's sake was the modus operandi of the first part of the program that brought Benjamin Schmid and Ariane Haering to the Jones Hall stage. In three works that offer many notes but little substance, the soloists trilled and arpeggiated, hammered out octaves and precisely placed multiple stops, and aimed at convincing the audience with exaggerated bodily and facial movements that the melodies they were playing were greater than they really were. There was, certainly, much ado about nothing happening on stage.

It can be a treat to hear a rare work by a frequently programmed composer, but Mendelssohn's Double Concerto is flawed through and through. Stuffily orchestrated, with "learned" counterpoint attempting to overcome weak material and none of the organic repartee that the composer would put to such ingenious use in his mature Violin Concerto, even the most expert advocacy for the piece falls flat. Schmid and Haering began convincingly after the orchestral exposition. Haering's imposing tone from the piano and generous pedaling suited the initial entry, as did Schmid's rocketing arpeggios. Soon, however, the interpretive stances from both soloists became one-note. Schmid quickly became cloying, employing a constant, exaggerated vibrato on anything longer than a sixteenth note, and never expressively varying the speed or width of that vibrato. It is true, he can play the trickiest passages with ease, nail difficult chords and effortlessly toss off bariolages, but there simply wasn't much actually said in the piece. Surely the opening melodic statement of the central Adagio was a chance for more straightforward playing--letting the melody speak for itself. Sadly, it wasn't so. This tune was played with the same affects as every other tune in the piece. Similarly, Haering never moved beyond a peasant, heavily pedaled manner of playing, impressive as her technique is. Graf's decision to reduce the string complement also seemed misguided. The wind orchestration is opaque throughout, and when the strings were supposed to carry the texture, they were simply overshadowed by the winds, the soloists, or both.

Fortunately for Haering, Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brillant sees the composer successfully integrating soloists and orchestra and giving much more interpretive fodder for the performers. Haering limned the opening arpeggios beneath a finely-voiced melody, momentarily achieving a sense of tasteful repose. In the main fast music, rhythmic precision drove the piece constantly forward and Graf and the orchestra brought a nice lilt to the march-like final theme. In eleven minutes there is so much more said than in the Double Concerto's thirty-five.

After intermission, the schlock returned, with Fritz Kreisler's gaudily inflated reworking of Paganini given a syrupy-sweet patina by Schmid. Kreisler's essay is mesmerizingly over-the-top, as is he'd snuck into an orchestration seminar with Ottorino Respighi and submitted this piece as his thesis. Perhaps, then, Schmid's playing suited the piece to a T. The technical demands were easily conquered and the work's cadenza (the third lengthy cadenza of the evening) was, I must confess, breathtaking in its execution.

One can imagine Claude Debussy sitting through this trio of unctuous virtuoso vehicles and immediately resolving to compose music that bucked the gauche trend of self-serving Romantic virtuosity. His nautical triptych La Mer is certainly virtuosic, but the technical passages serve a purpose: to give the impression of the sea's tempests, whirlpools and whitecaps. Here we see exemplified the composer's edict that "Works of art make rules, rules do not make works of art," in an organic structure that ingeniously manages to convey inevitability without subscribing to a traditional formula.

Graf's interpretation of the piece is exciting, especially in the second and third movements. In the opening "De l'aube à midi sur la mer," the tempo was a bit slack, putting too much emphasis on the subdivision and losing the larger pulse. That said, it opened the door for maximum contrast with the ensuing sections. The playing of the waves in the second tableau saw soloists diving around each other, cymbal splashes and harp glissandi providing refreshing sonic ocean spray, all held together by Graf's precise negotiation of ever-changing tempi. The finale's tempest was thrilling as well, with bold horn and trumpet playing bolstering a taut reading full of momentum.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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