Young players show their mettle at Texas Music Festival

Sun Jun 18, 2017 at 1:47 pm
By Steven Brown

Andres Franco conducted the Texas Music Festival Orchestra Saturday night at the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston.

Every June, the Texas Music Festival gives young instrumentalists from colleges and conservatories nationwide — along with a scattering of foreign students — a foretaste of what it’s like to play in a professional orchestra. The hundred or so budding musicians leave behind the multiweek rehearsal schedules typical of school orchestras to rehearse and perform a fresh program under a new conductor each week, just as the pros do.

That isn’t the only challenge. The festival, hosted by the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, tests the young players with meaty standard-repertoire works and, on occasion, demanding scores that even professionals rarely tackle. Last year’s group, led during its final week by Pacific Symphony music director Carl St. Clair, capped off the 2016 festival with a zesty, colorful performance of Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony.

Neither the program nor the results were quite as formidable Saturday, when the 2017 TMF Orchestra showed off the results of its week with Andres Franco. Franco, assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of Tulsa’s Signature Symphony, directed a program that culminated in a classic showpiece: Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The concert served to spotlight the flair of some of the orchestra’s sections, while also pointing out where work remains to be done.

With a hundred-member orchestra performing in an 800-seat hall–the university’s Moores Opera House, where the acoustics are among the best in Houston–Pictures was almost sure to make a splash. But the orchestra didn’t simply rely on strength in numbers.

The sturdy brass section gave the opening Promenade theme a stately beginning, then opened up more grandly in the climactic “Great Gate of Kiev.” The mellow, long-breathed saxophone solo lent a wistfulness to “The Old Castle.” The strings’ fullness captured the rich man’s swagger in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” The winds bustled along crisply in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and the violins’ dash animated “Limoges.”

Franco and the group didn’t have other sections so firmly in hand, with several beginning raggedly. Though the strings’ outbursts in “Gnomus” are more about ferocity–which the group gave them–than precision, it’s possible to put across more of the phrases’ shape than the orchestra did. The bassoons backing up the serenade in “The Old Castle” had much less finesse than the saxophone. The woodwinds hit snags as they scurried through “Tuileries.” Thus do young musicians discover their strengths and weaknesses.

The concert opened with a rarity, György Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc. Based in part on tunes Ligeti absorbed during his childhood in Transylvania, the concise, four-movement Romanian rhapsody harks back to the folk-music scores of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, and the orchestra performed it with spirit.

The strings sang out full-throatedly in the meditative first movement, and the winds sparkled in the second movement’s romp. In the third movement, an atmospheric Adagio, the duet between on- and offstage horns included a few cracked notes, but the picturesque Alpine effect still registered. An ardent English horn solo lent richness; the ethereal, almost disembodied strings added a tinge of mystery. The orchestra tackled the folk-dance finale with gusto, and fleet string solos by guest concertmaster Xiao Wang and others gave it an air of a Transylvanian hoedown.

Most of the festival’s teachers and coaches come from the ranks of present and past Houston Symphony principals. But the faculty includes outsiders, too, including violin teacher Lucie Robert of New York’s Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College of Music. As a salute to her 21 summers in Houston, the festival put her at center stage for Ernest Chausson’s Poeme and Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane.

Her performance included a daring gambit. Violin dealer Florian Leonhard had brought a rare-instrument exhibition to the festival, and on Saturday afternoon Robert tried out a 1724 Stradivarius. After she took a shine to it, Leonhard gave her permission to borrow it for the concert. The schedule held no more rehearsals, so Robert played Chausson and Ravel without running through them on her new discovery in front of the orchestra.

She and the Strad delivered emphatic performances of both works, bringing rhapsodic force to Chausson and bold strokes to Ravel. Though the orchestra didn’t have the deep, dark tone to set the scene for Chausson’s brooding, it lent airiness to the music when Robert was playing double-stops a bit deliberately. And its splashes of color helped put gypsy swagger in Ravel.

Brett Mitchell, music director designate of the Colorado Symphony, leads the Texas Music Festival Orchestra in works by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Dmitri Shostakovich and Edward Elgar 7:30 p.m. June 24 in the Moores Opera House at the University of Houston. 713-743-3388;

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