“Free” is not a word one would ordinarily associate with a first class orchestra like the Houston Symphony. But free was the operative word for the two recent Mitchell Concerts at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Through the generosity of TAS Commercial Concrete Construction L.P., Waste Management Inc. and The Wortham Foundation, all lawn seating for the summer events was made available to the public without charge. While I missed the first concert, highlighting the works of Beethoven, the second evening was a night of music I will long remember.
The wonderful program opened with “The Voyevoda, Opus 78” by Tchaikovsky. The thrilling opening strains were full of immediate mystery and rising excitement. For those who had attended the symphony’s recent performance here of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” it would be difficult to miss the similarities in musical power and intensity. Music director, Hans Graf, showed impressive skill eliciting precise and exciting musicianship from his talented orchestra. Graf conducts with the grace of a ballet dancer, drawing particular sweetness from the harp and strings. It might be argued that Tchaikovsky has never produced more exquisite music for the string section.
The concert included another Tchaikovsky masterwork, the “Symphony #4 in F minor, Opus 36,” featuring more of the composers rich romanticism and musical majesty. Large screen projections on either side of the stage gave the audience close-up peeks at featured performers and the conductor. During the fiery 1st Movement, “Andante sostenuto”, it was most interesting to see Graf’s intimate connection with the musicians from this live/video perspective. It also gave the audience the opportunity to note the many youthful performers in the orchestra. That bodes well for the future of H.S.O.
The serenity of the 2nd Movement, “Andantino,” was pure bliss. The 3rd Movement, “Scherzo,” opens with an almost prancing quality (in the extensive pizzicato plucking of the strings) that seemed to cry out for ballet dancers. Then came the electrifying energy of the stunning “Finale,” masterfully performed and conducted. Graf was particularly exciting to watch during the musical fireworks of the closing crescendos.
But the featured work of the evening had even more stunning musical fireworks to offer. It was Rachmaninoff’s “2nd Piano Concerto in C minor, Opus 36.” This had to be a special treat for those of us who remembered Tom Ewell’s hilarious erotic fantasies in the Hollywood comedy classic, “The Seven Year Itch,” co-starring Marilyn Monroe. But this concert was no comic performance, but rather a richly beautiful interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece. The featured soloist was world-renowned pianist, Antonio Pampa-Baldi. He began the 1st Movement “Moderato,” with a crisp, yet gentle delicacy that contrasted with an ever-rising passion and power that seemed to perfectly match the composer’s intentions in this romantic classic. The 2nd Movement’s “Adagio sostenuto,” highlighted by Baldi’s incredibly fluid keyboard dexterity, had a softness and serenity that allowed me to briefly ponder how fortunate we are to have such cultural richness and musical excellence available right here in Montgomery County. Then, during the pyrotechnics of the 3rd Movement’s “Allegro scherzando,” it was mesmerizing to watch the artist’s gifted hands race up and down the piano keys like rapid-fire spiders that move so quickly, one longs for slow motion to discover if what we are seeing is really possible. Then the warmth of the work’s most familiar theme leads to the magnificent conclusion. Woodlands resident and life-long pianist, Mary Walther was in the audience. Perhaps she summed it up best in saying, “I’ve never heard it played any better!” I doubt she ever will!
(The Courier 7.25.04)
(The Villager 7.29.04)