Texas Music Festival opens, eventually, with energy and grandeur

Sun Jun 09, 2019 at 11:57 am
By Steven Brown

Kenneth Broberg performed Rachmaninoff at the opening concert of the Texas Music Festival Saturday night in Houston. Photo: Jeremy Enlow

The Texas Music Festival gives conservatory musicians a glimpse of how professional orchestras work, rehearsing and performing a fresh program every week. Here’s hoping that when this year’s 90-plus orchestral fellows go on to their pro careers, they don’t encounter too many evenings that begin the way Saturday night’s event did.

The starting time of the concert–the 2019 festival’s first orchestral program—was 20 minutes past when the house lights in the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House finally went down. Next came speechifying, which did not include any explanation of the delay. The “7:30 p.m.” performance actually began, as gauged by conductor Franz Anton Krager’s downbeat, at 8 on the dot.

The young musicians had thus spent 30 to 45 minutes onstage warming up, then biding their time. But the wait evidently left their energy undimmed. 

As the concert’s opening salvo, the percussionists laid into their instruments with vigor, giving Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man a walloping start. When the brasses chimed in, the trumpeters not only made the opening phrases gleam, but gave them a legato smoothness that lent them nobility. Krager let Copland’s grand gestures unfold in a steady, stately flow that filled them with gravity and resoluteness.

The orchestra plunged directly from that into Joan Tower’s animated Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which sounded downright militant Saturday. Krager and the group gave the relatively spacious moments due dignity. But when the music called for dynamism, everyone sprang into action. 

Krager set a brisk pace, the brasses played with fluency and power, and the percussionists dug in with even more abandon than they had for Copland–especially during Tower’s booming timpani solos and the rapid-fire barrages at the climax. Unleashed in an 800-seat hall, that added up to a visceral experience.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade delivered some visceral moments as well, particularly when the string section of 50-plus capable players poured sound into the compact Moores hall.

In “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” and the finale, the strings delivered waves of full, resonant tone, which were all the more imposing because Krager let them roll along in a smooth, inexorable surge. When “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” reached its apex, Krager finally slowed the pace a bit to drive home the music’s grandeur.

Concertmaster Xiao Wang, brought the violin solos a suavity and coziness that brought out the more intimate side of Rimsky-Korsakov’s tone-painting. 

Further down that line, “The Kalendar Prince” came to life with especially colorful wind solos: the bassoon was full-throated and expansive; the clarinet drawing back at times to a whisper, the French horn, broad and mellow. Though the occasional cracked note or tangled melisma signaled that the budding musicians still need work on consistency and control, their flair and musicality came through.

In “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” Krager played the lilt of the strings’ lyricism against the buoyancy of the winds’ dance; the violins and cellos sang out ardently, with Krager helping guide their rise and fall of intensity. And the orchestra’s drive and crispness brought out the excitement of the finale’s “Festival at Baghdad.”

Where the ensemble really had to summon its agility, though, was in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which featured pianist Kenny Broberg–a University of Houston alumnus and silver medalist in the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Broberg and Krager set brisk tempos that emphasized the Rhapsody’s devilry, and the orchestra kept up its end of the deal. The strings chattered lightly and clearly in the speediest variations; the winds’ byplay was by and large zesty and crisp, apart from the English horn’s early entrance. The orchestra welled up sonorously in the famous 18th variation.

At center stage, Broberg’s dash, agility and impact enabled him to positively revel in the music’s demonic overtones. He also benefited from  a piano that boasted ring and carrying power. 

No matter how lustily the orchestra played behind him, Broberg made the piano part ring out above it, enriching the music’s texture and personality. He gave an undercurrent of electricity even to the variations that don’t go for spectacle–such as the Tempo di minuetto, where Broberg laced the lilting music with moments of bite. And in the lyrical upsurge of the 18th variation, Broberg played with fullness and finesse, without the big tune ever turning syrupy. 

Later this month, Broberg will vie in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he will be one of only two U.S. contestants in the piano division. As a warmup, he played a recital last Wednesday in the University of Houston’s Duncan Recital Hall. 

In a program that ranged from J.S. Bach through Beethoven and Franz Liszt to Rachmaninoff’s contemporary Nikolai Medtner, Broberg always played with clarity and precision.

His touch was at times a bit brittle in the A-flat prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier and in Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110. But Broberg swept exuberantly through the acrobatics of Liszt’s Wilde Jagd. 

And in Medtner’s sprawling, half-hour “Night Wind” Sonata, inspired by a Russian poem describing a tormented soul, he turned the piano into a virtual orchestra, dealing out thunder, heroics and lyricism in turn. May it make that big an impression in Moscow.

Rossen Milanov leads the Texas Music Festival Orchestra in works by J.S. Bach, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Paul Dukas at 7:30 June 15 in the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House. uh.edu; 713-743-3388.

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