He explained his mother’s distress that she was unavoidably absent for this, her favorite event of the Pavilion year. This was the night for the 11th annual Texas Music Festival Orchestra. Each year this festival showcases talented young musicians from throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Following a month of intensive study and preparation at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, the gifted youngsters came together for the gala concert which has become a highlight of Houston’s classical music season.
Several scholarship winners were introduced, and the winners of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition were announced. This year’s winners were tied for 1st Place: Matthew Dickson (trombone) from New Haven, Connecticut, and Dan Zhu (violin) from Beijing. Robert Pagan (Flute) of Brooklyn, N.Y. was runner-up.
The program began with the “Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op.59” of Richard Strauss. The orchestra’s shimmering brilliance was evident from the very first phrases of this popular masterpiece. It is a work of varying moods, and I did have a bit of momentary nervousness during some of the most powerful and vigorous portions. The stage was heavily “miked” (there were no fewer than 13 scattered microphones visible amid the orchestra), and in the early going I feared a bit of harshness was creeping into the acoustical equation during crescendos that were not microphone-friendly.
Happily this seemed to quickly resolve itself under the baton of skilled conductor, Leon Spierer. This is a piece that wraps its arms around the audience when played with such superb craftsmanship. The familiar waltz portion was elegantly performed, and the richness of the strings was particularly evident in the cellos.
The conclusion was nothing short of thrilling. Next, Mr. Dickson joined the orchestra for a solo turn on trombone during “Concertino Op.4” by Ferdinand David. This was a regal and majestic delicacy. Dickson delivered velvet tones in a work that showcases the trombone’s unique range in a way that is rarely seen. As the pace quickened, the tall, handsome soloist showed that he had the technical expertise to preside beautifully as his fellow musicians provided the thrilling backdrop for this exciting composition.
Mr. Zhu’s solo was the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto.” The watchword was virtuosity from the very outset. There was no slow warm-up here, as the racing technical brilliance of this talented young man was evident at once in the demanding opening passages. His high-speed instrumental heroics were nothing short of dazzling, and his precision and exquisite interpretation provided colossal closing moments that brought the crowd roaring to its feet.
Following intermission, the delicious, swirling, waltz music of Johann Strauss Jr. was featured in an “Overture to Die Fledermaus, Op.362” that was tenderly conducted and lovingly performed. How many of us dream of gliding across some grand palace ballroom when we hear a masterpiece of such sweeping grandeur and grace? It was a joy!
And speaking of joy, Spierer then took violin in hand to both conduct and perform during the exquisite Strauss “Blue Danube.” The mystery of its whispered opening captures our attention immediately. The rapturous theme will lift us out of our chairs as the soaring waltz emerges.
Spierer joyfully joins in on violin with infectious enthusiasm. A more beautiful rendition, on a more beautiful night in Texas, could not be imagined.
Finally the snare drums were brought front and center on the stage to guide their peers on a haunting trip through Ravel’s “Bolero.” Spierer finally rested a bit and took a seat on the stage to enjoy the various skillful solos that repeatedly introduce the hypnotic and compelling theme. The music weaves a spell like no other composition as it snakes its way to higher and higher plateaus. With relaxed grace, Spierer and the violins strummed their instruments like soft guitars. Watching these young performers display such musical mastery at the beginning of their careers is what makes this annual event so special. I count this as the most satisfying “Bolero” I have ever seen.
The cheering audience was rewarded with a perennial favorite: “Radetsky March” by Johann Strauss Sr. Maestro Spierer left the audience laughing by conducting their hand-clapping participation from the stage.
(The Courier 6.29.00)