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Bell Shines in Pleasant Concert

Jones Hall
09/20/2013 -  and September 21, 22, 2013
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina: Dance of the Persian Slaves
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on 'Greensleeves'
Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

Joshua Bell (piano)
Houston Symphony, Lawrence Foster (conductor)

J. Bell (© Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

The Houston Symphony continued its early season mode of high profile soloists and colorful programming. Perhaps reflecting the end of summer, former HSO music director Lawrence Foster led the orchestra in a quartet of works that felt cobbled together from a summer festival program. The performances were all pleasant, the interpretations cool-headed.

The ballet episode from Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina is not one of the composer's stronger or more interesting works. Its ubiquitous Orientalia compensates for a diffuse, episodic structure, and the piece provides many opportunities for lyrical solos, which the musicians played wonderfully. Foster created phrasing that seemed a bit fussy, making a calculated first impression rather than a warm, inviting or invigorating one.

Joshua Bell's return to the HSO season was a welcome one. Presenting Tchaikovsky's two most famous concertante works in two consecutive concerts is not terribly imaginative programming, but Bell's subtly alluring reading left a much better impression than we heard last week from Kirill Gerstein. With charismatic stage presence and consistent interaction both with Foster and the members of the orchestra, Bell gave the impression that he was showing close friends around his home town. Every technical twist and turn was handled masterfully, but the lyrical lines were the real standouts. With purity of tone and intonation, and a willingness to reduce his huge tone to a barely audible whisper, these moments of repose were welcome. Foster seemed surprise several times by Bell's tempo shifts, especially after the opening cadenza of the finale, where Bell took a slightly faster than what was anticipated. All fell together in the end, however, and this performance, while not strikingly memorable or individual, was wholly satisfactory.

The Vaughan Williams Fantasia after intermission felt perfunctory, and Foster seemed to try to compensate for this with pregnant phrasing and an almost militaristic approach to the central episode's dotted rhythms. The strings of the orchestra played with warm tone and blend, especially the hushed viola reprise of "Greensleeves."

Foster was largely unobtrusive in his interpretation of Elgar's Enigma Variations, but lacked a vision for the work as a whole. Individual variations were finely sculpted, but already at the end of the first variation ("C.A.E."), the horns' incantation of the theme (marked merely forte beneath the strings' fortissimo) dominated the texture like a Mahlerian peroration. Crafting a convincing shape across the work's many episodes is the challenge here, but repeated, equivalent climaxes and denouements aren't ideal. The noticeably lightweight reading of "Nimrod" left one wondering where Foster thought the heart of the work was. The musicians of the orchestra played the work wonderfully, with hushed, meditative playing in the viola and clarinet solos contrasting nicely with the flashy virtuosity of the woodwind section, clearly delighting in Elgar's whimsical roulades.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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