Symphony shines on Russian sojourn

REVIEW  |  11.14.08  |  Houston Chronicle

The sunny side of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky ­- that’s the guiding principle, more or less, of this weekend’s Houston Symphony program at Jones Hall.

The program showcases merry, comparatively early compositions of two Russian masters more readily identified with somber and melancholy works, such as Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique.

Even more unexpectedly, this musical sojourn through Russia also includes a brief detour to East Texas. Don’t ask how, but it all seemed to fit together perfectly at Thursday’s opening of the program, which repeats tonight and Sunday.

As soloist for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Jon Kimura Parker distinguished the rendition with his impassioned and vigorous playing. This eccentric and irreverent work abounds in dramatic effects, which Parker exploited successfully, at times virtually bounding from the bench.

Actually a double concerto, the work boasts a secondary solo role for trumpet, which Mark Hughes dispatched with crisp definition and mellow tone.

The Lento second movement proved especially appealing. Maestro Hans Graf’s delicacy in leading the strings through the movement’s slightly attenuated opening theme set the stage for Parker’s most artful and restrained playing, at times lingering lovingly over a note or phrase.

The Allegro con brio finale showcased Parker’s dexterity in its busy keyboard work. Graf maintained control even as this rousing movement’s continuous acceleration built excitement by suggesting a runaway train hurtling out of control.

The program closed with a masterful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, which employs several folk tunes from the Ukraine, then known as “Little Russia” – hence the work’s subtitle Little Russian.

Graf’s command and balance of the orchestral forces sustained unity through the four movements while projecting the work’s charm, spirit and nationalistic flavor throughout. After the haunting initial statement of the first movement’s main theme, a driving energy took hold, powering its brisk development.

The Andantino marziale second movement was perfectly realized. The performance conveyed the main theme’s nobility of spirit and indefatigable jauntiness. The orchestra treated the wistful alternate theme with a graceful legato that always segued seamlessly back to that insistent march.

To the bounding third movement, unusually vivacious even by the standards of a Tchaikovsky scherzo, the orchestra brought dynamism and precision.

The rich, round sound and exciting pacing achieved by Graf and his musicians gave the potent finale its full measure of power and grandeur. From the stately initial statement of its main theme, through the brisk development, to the gently swaying second theme, the zestful, triumphant spirit prevailed. As often in the closing stretch of a Tchaikovsky finale, the coda builds and builds till you think there’s nowhere else to build to. But Graf is sufficiently shrewd as both conductor and showman to pitch the final measures for optimal impact without making one feel that Pyotr Ilyich stretched things just a bridge too far.

Graf opened the concert’s second half leading Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers, which the orchestra commissioned and premiered in 1986. Inspired by rivers in East Texas, the piece has some of the nostalgic mood and harmonics of Aaron Copland. The orchestra gave a gently evocative reading.

Brett Mitchell, the orchestra’s assistant conductor and American Conducting Fellow, opened the concert capably leading three short pieces by Shostakovich.

He caught the playful novelty of Tahiti-Trot, Shostakovich’s created-on-a-dare arrangement of Tea for Two, from Vincent Youmans’ 1925 Broadway hit No, No Nanette. Mitchell also led two excerpts from Shostakovich’s score for the 1955 film The Gadfly: the warmly lyrical Romance and the exuberant Folk Festival, allowing the musicians to revel in its racing rhythms and brilliant orchestral colors.


"Fantasy is not just a technical showcase, but a big, clear picture window of a musician with a rich soul and great artistic depth. It is also a fantastic example of programming that entertains as well as edifies.”
-Musical Toronto

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