On June 19th, as renowned conductor Stephen Stein ascended the podium at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion with baton in hand, many in the audience were aware that this would be perhaps the last time he would break the Jewish Sabbath by performing on a Friday evening. The young maestro, who has previously led both the Anchorage and Detroit Symphonies, has served brilliantly as conductor-in-residence of the Houston Symphony since 1992. It is also interesting to note that Stein won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Dramatic Achievement in Student Film for his brilliant adaptation of Mozart’s opera, “The Impressario.” Following this weekend’s performances, however, Stein will follow a spiritual calling of a higher order as he travels to Jerusalem to undertake a 5 year graduate program in rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
Speaking of Mozart (1756-1791), the evening’s program began with his Symphony # 36 in C Major. The first movement had a calmness inspired by the richness of HSO’s strings. Mr. Stein, looking summer-cool in white pants and black shirt, was dressed in opposition to his talented musicians. The Mozart piece, with its stately grace, seemed an appropriate choice for the occasion of Stein’s departure. His conducting, as ever, had a graceful fluidity suggesting he may have been a ballet dancer in another incarnation. But no movement is wasted as each gesture has an intimate connection with his needs from the orchestra. How, we wonder, can such a brilliant star be plucked from the Houston sky? But the richness of Mozart calms us as the Adagio accelerates to a shimmering conclusion.
The second movement’s “Andante” again puts the focus on HSO’s stellar violin section in a subtle but technically rich performance. A perfect unity evolves among the string sections with gentle support from the skilled brass, percussion and woodwinds.
The third movement’s “Menuetto” makes us wish we were in a grand 18th century palace enjoying a stately minuet with the upper classes. The bright and graceful dance tempo sweeps us back to an earlier era. Then the fourth movement’s “Presto” quickens the pace, but the perfect control of Mr. Stein remains as the virtuosity of the strings is demonstrated in rapid-fire fashion, and the tempo rises toward the elegant finale.
The next selection was the “Suite From Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). It had special interest for me, as Mr. Copland was a longtime resident of my native Westchester County in New York, where he was honored on several occasions in my hometown of Peekskill’s beautifully restored Paramount Theater. It was there that this humble critic got his start.
This piece seems somehow to rise out of an unseen mist with softly melodic woodwinds suggesting the dawn of spring. Bursts of energy from the strings are punctuated by regal brass passages which build the power of a piece that is surprising for its frequent returns to quiet and solitude. Stein shows his skill in the details of the segments with slow tempo, and then, suddenly, the work comes to a gallop much like the soundtrack of a great Hollywood western. The orchestral sections seem almost to bounce off of each other as they explore Copland’s melodic themes from different perspectives. We are never sure what Copland will do next.
The 7th section of this piece is best known and consists of Copland’s five variations on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” It has such a grand and gracious power that we feel we are being prepared for some special episode of “Masterpiece Theater.” Finally, the music gently subsides with a quiet coda, which returns us to the mist.
Following the intermission, both Dr. David Gottlieb (Pavilion President & CEO) and Mrs. Cynthia Woods Mitchell herself, took to the stage to honor Mr. Stein. Mr. Gottlieb wished him a good-humored farewell with a Hebrew translation of “Happy trails to you!” Mrs. Mitchell presented a gift to Mr. Stein with special thanks for his many contributions to the Arts in The Woodlands, and particularly for his many efforts on behalf of music education for children. In turn, Stein praised Mitchell’s “artistic support and vision” in making the Pavilion dream come true.
Next, the soloist for the evening, Scott Holshouser, joined the symphony to perform Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini, Op.43.” His fluid and vibrant technique was highlighted by an impressive crispness that seemed particularly well suited to the piece. He was unintimidated by the “racing” passages of great technical difficulty. One moment Mr. Holshouser would demonstrate a delicate lightness of touch to be envied, the next moment a pulsing, pounding power that was quite remarkable. This was truly an artist who deserved to be seated at the Pavilion Steinway!
In the piece’s most well-known passage, the finale of Variations XXII – XXIII, we at last have the consummation of this marriage between a real orchestra and a great soloist. In these thrilling final moments we are again aware of the full power of this superb symphony orchestra. The audience was quickly on its feet with much-deserved cries of “Bravo!”
The final work of the evening was the “Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34,” by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Its 5 movements begin with a thrilling “Alborada” that sizzles with tambourines and an orchestra that sounds as if it is on the march.
Suddenly, in the 2nd Movement, we have a quieter, more contemplative atmosphere, which displays the composer’s varied moods and textures. Movement 3 returns the “Alborada” with its brisk and pulsing crescendos.
The final movements begin with the stunning violin solo of Concertmaster, Uri Pianka. The compelling Gypsy melody then draws us in seductively as the work’s most popular passage builds its power in much the way of Ravel’s “Bolero.” The orchestra climbs ever higher with castanets accenting the unmistakably Spanish flavor of the very thrilling finale.
A great evening of music had been the culmination of at least this portion of the great musical career of conductor Stein. He shall be greatly missed and fondly remembered. As Mrs. Mitchell remarked: “God Speed!”
(The Courier 6.19.98)