Graf returns to lead Houston Symphony in Adams, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky
Thursday evening, the Houston Symphony presented three works conducted by former music director Hans Graf at Jones Hall. Each of the three pieces was devoid of excess emotion, but for markedly different reasons.
Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments opened the concert. Originally written in 1920, it was revised in 1947, and features only woodwinds and brass, sans strings and percussion. Stravinsky wrote the final portion, a hymn-like chorale, as his part of musical tributes by leading composers memorializing the death of Claude Debussy.
Stravinsky describes the nine-minute work as “an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.” The word “symphonies” points to “a sounding together” rather than symphonic form. Symphonies is unified by three distinct tempos that are mathematically related to each other, and must be played non-rubato, or with inflexible tempos. Stravinsky said, “This music is not meant to ‘please’ an audience, nor to arouse its passions.”
Graf’s intellectual, objective approach was perfect for achieving that end. The conductor was clear and precise in controlling the multiple tempo and meter changes. The outstanding wind section of the Houston Symphony deftly maintained balance, pitch and ensemble while shifting from one instrumental grouping to another. Stravinsky made extensive use of the solo flute in disjunct melodic lines, effortlessly played by Aralee Dorough.
Composer John Adams turned 70 a week ago. His Saxophone Concerto, composed in 2013, was presented as part of that celebration this season. Adams grew up listening to his father play saxophone in swing bands, as well as recordings of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Wayne Shorter at home. These served as inspiration for the piece. Adams stipulated that the concerto be played in the jazz style of saxophone playing, as opposed to classical style.
Beginning with a quick sizzle then an exploding firecracker, the music serves up a seemingly endless stream of jazz samples. We hear snatches of the riffs that must be floating around in Adams’ head since his youth. While initially interesting, after some time the music becomes a sonic “Where’s Waldo?” with countless details obscuring the picture. The listener is left with the impression of a musical jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces fit together but the artistic value is in doubt. The end, after nearly half an hour, comes several minutes too late.
None of the perceived shortcomings were due to Timothy McAllister, the concerto’s dedicatee, who may be the only person on earth who can play the exceptionally difficult solo part. (His recording with the Saint Louis Symphony won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in 2015.)
McAllister is an exceptional performer, with limitless technique and musical imagination. He manages to find expression in the smallest phrase or fleeting passage, moving throughout the wide range of the alto saxophone with ease. The last part of the first movement, marked Tranquillo, suave, took on a sexy and sensuous character often associated with the saxophone. The last movement had nonstop virtuoso playing that ended abruptly. Graf was efficient and precise in leading the multi-faceted orchestral accompaniment, which at times seemed like keeping kittens in a box.
Those yearning for a melody after the first half were fulfilled by the featured work, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in the orchestration by Maurice Ravel.
What was somewhat disconcerting about Thursday’s performance was an odd absence of color. Hans Graf, after expertly leading two challenging works on the first half, seemed out of his element. His downbeats in soft passages were so shallow the musicians ended up holding their breath, waiting to exhale, which perhaps contributed to several uncharacteristic pitch problems in the brass.
Graf seemed to be going through the motions rather than the emotions. Some tempos were so fast that the woodwinds scrambled to keep up. The strings were fairly colorless, and not all entrances were secure. The percussion, who did not play on the first half, were not uniformly aligned with the violins.
The last movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” was where the Houston Symphony of late finally emerged. It was a rousing conclusion and brought the Jones Hall audience to its feet, although there was not much to applaud in most of the Mussorgsky performance, as conducted by Graf.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. houstonsymphony.org