Houston Symphony gives thanks to Richard Strauss with an evening of brilliant music

Sat Nov 30, 2019 at 2:08 pm
By Steven Brown
Richard Strauss’s music was performed by the Houston Symphony conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada Friday night at Jones Hall.

Richard Strauss created some of the splashiest, most theatrical orchestral music in the repertory. So, an all-Strauss program might easily turn into too much of a good thing—leaving one feeling as overstuffed as a large Thanksgiving dinner. 

Fortunately, the Houston Symphony and music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada avoided that danger Friday night at Jones Hall.

Could anything begin a concert in a less showy way than the sickroom gloom that launches Strauss’s early tone poem Death and Transfiguration? Yet Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra made it as arresting as the sonic pyrotechnics that come later in the score.

The upper strings’ pulsations were hushed but deep, generating a paradoxical electricity. The rumblings from the orchestra’s lower reaches added sepulchral darkness and depth, and the tendrils of melody sang out plaintively.

As the protagonist’s death throes erupted, Orozco-Estrada spurred the orchestra to give them visceral force.

When the sufferings gave way to memories of better days, the orchestra’s sweep and red-blooded richness brought them to life. The players evoked the departed’s transfiguration in a gradual, commanding crescendo. Without interrupting the momentum, Orozco-Estrado took time to lead the strings to caress the most mellifluous turns of phrase. At the climax, Strauss’s main transfiguration theme rang out majestically.

Written 58 years later at the end of his long life, Strauss’s Four Last Songs returned to the theme of life’s inevitable end, complete with a quote from Death and Transfiguration.

Some conductors emphasize the songs’ spaciousness to a fault. Orozco-Estrada gave them a bit more flow, setting up Swedish soprano Miah Persson to relish the vocal flights that are the songs’ calling card. 

And the soloist’s lyric-soprano gleam and fluent vocalism clearly savored the songs’ transports and reveries alike. When Strauss called for her to soar, Persson gave each melisma a shape and energy of its own–surging here, relaxing there, ringing out vibrantly at the line’s peak. As  “Spring” invoked birdsong, her lightness gave the moment an airy charm of its own. 

In the songs’ more reflective sections, Persson imbued the German texts with an almost conversational feel. That was especially compelling in the last song, “At Sunset,” with its meditation on past experiences and life’s final dusk. Persson’s voice sounded a bit dry at times, but that was a small price to pay for the expressive immediacy of her performance. 

When her voice was silent, Orozco-Estrada let the orchestra’s rich textures bloom. But whenever Strauss brought the solo voice to the fore, the conductor alertly pared down his accompaniment. In “Going to Sleep,” guest concertmaster Juliette Kang set the stage for Persson by filling her pivotal violin solo with shapeliness and warmth.

The concert’s second half brought two portraits of antiheroes: Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan. The orchestra plunged into both showpieces with ample virtuosity, but Orozco-Estrada ensured that each work had its own distinctive profile.

After Orozco-Estrada took his bow before Don Juan, he gave the downbeat before the audience had finished applauding; the entire performance was shot through with that kind of eagerness. 

The orchestra’s power and crackling virtuosity captured the legendary rake’s sheer, self-destructive abandon. The strings’ most flamboyant flourishes were dashing, forceful and razor-sharp; the entire ensemble brought the climaxes tremendous energy and blazing tone.

Principal oboist Jonathan Fischer and principal clarinetist Mark Nuccio spun out Strauss’ lyricism tenderly in the love scenes. And when Don Juan met his doom, the orchestra’s muffled, glowering tone put across his spiritual darkness.

The prankster Eulenspiegel came to life through the orchestra’s quicksilver fleetness and whimsical light touch.  Associate principal horn Robert Johnson set the tone with his nimble solos, and the orchestra’s agility and sharpness gave each of Eulenspiegel’s escapades a rascally pizazz—especially principal flutist Aralee Dorough—with clarinetist Nuccio investing the troublemaker’s last cries with squealing desperation.

Screens on either side of the stage supplied translations for the Four Last Songs. But someone had the dubious idea to use projected titles during the tone poems as well.

In Don Juan, that included the likes of “Don Juan theme,” “First encounter” and “In his mind, he was a hero.” That last one, accompanying the striding horn theme, got a chuckle from some listeners—probably not the reaction Strauss wanted.

If ever there was music that invites listeners to listen and let their minds’ eyes run free, it’s these colorful, picturesque works. No doubt, helping the audience understand the scenarios was well-intentioned. But the spoon-feeding only pre-empted the listeners’ own reactions.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. houstonsymphony.org; 713-224-7575. 

Leave a Comment