Shaham, Albrecht close Houston Symphony season in memorable style

Sat May 20, 2017 at 2:29 pm
By Lawrence Wheeler

Gil Shaham performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Houston Symphony Friday night.

It is always a pleasure to hear a performance where every part contributes to a memorable experience, and the Houston Symphony’s concert Friday night at Jones Hall had a steady stream of great moments.

Making his Houston Symphony debut, conductor Marc Albrecht led works by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. He was joined by Gil Shaham for Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto.

The program began with Schumann’s overture to Genoveva, the infrequently performed part of the composer’s rarely heard sole opera. Albrecht has extensive opera experience and, from the very first notes, one could hear a strong point of view guiding and shaping each phrase. Schumann’s densely scored music can often sound monolithic, but this interpretation sounded fresh, revealing inner details without neglecting operatic drama. First violins were particularly expressive and supple. French horns were notable, and trombones contributed to a rousing ending.

Written concurrently with his popular ballet Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 shares many of the same lyrical and dance qualities. It is one of his most melodious works, immediately accessible to audiences. Since the work was originally conceived as a “concert sonata,” a chamber music sense pervades the score. Composed while traveling through numerous cities, Prokofiev added castanets in the last movement– a nod to the premiere audience in Madrid.

Gil Shaham is one of the foremost violinists before the public today. The soloist used every inch of available space on the stage, dancing and moving around to interact with the sections in the orchestra. His performance was virtually flawless, with a prodigious technique and silky tone throughout. He made the most difficult passages sound easy, and his free use of the bow rarely produced a compressed tone.

First movement modulations and transitions that are potential stumbling blocks were rendered by Shaham with a natural flow. He played the cantabile solo line in the second movement with quiet dignity while maintaining a steady pulse, with the return of the first melody given glorious and ecstatic treatment. The third movement dance featured incisive and sardonic playing by the soloist.  Albrecht and the Houston Symphony gave a solicitous and well balanced accompaniment.

After an extended standing ovation, Shaham offered a straightforward and perfectly beautiful rendition of the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major as an encore.

Marc Albrecht

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 was heard after intermission. Feeling the pressure of being the apparent successor to Beethoven, his first symphony was 14 years in the making. The influence, or the shadow of Beethoven, is felt in the first movement, where Brahms makes reference to Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Likewise, Brahms gives us a melody of striking similarity to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth in his own final movement.

Albrecht offered an interpretation that paid scrupulous attention to dynamic details without the music ever sounding manufactured. His choice of tempos seemed just right to convey all the warmth and emotion of the music that Brahms could never express personally.

The Houston Symphony was first-class, highlighted by outstanding wind solos. Guest concertmaster David Guerchovitch played the second movement solos with a beautifully projected tone.

This memorable concert made a fitting end to a season filled with outstanding performances.  

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

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