It had been one of those busy, hectic, rat-race days we all experience from time to time, so what followed was a perfect evening to be soothed by the elegant strains of the Houston Symphony on the Opening Night of its new season in the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. The concert, titled ”Tickle Me Symphony,” was designed to encourage families to bring the children along and enjoy the free lawn seating sponsored by Woodforest Bank. The casually dressed young conductor, Brett Mitchell, was well-chosen to address the younger members of the audience, as he had an infectious enthusiasm and evident joy while explaining the humorous, “fun” side of the classical selections on the program. I confess to being immediately prejudiced in his favor upon reading in the program that he is a fellow alumnus of The University of Texas, Austin, where he completed both his master’s and doctoral degrees in orchestral conducting.
First up, was Glinka’s dazzling, “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila.” Mitchell introduced the work by telling the audience how intense speed is sometimes used by composers in comical ways. As an example, using his commanding voice, he skillfully rattled off a recitation of Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyric from “Company”: I’m Not Getting Married Today. Then it was on to conducting his spirited musicians in a full display of their virtuosity during the incredible speed of the Glinka work, with its racing conclusion seeming very like an Olympic event.
Moving on to the ways in which music can amuse us with the unexpected, the conductor led the orchestra in Mozart’s “Ein musikalischer Spass” ( “A Musical Joke”) with its abrupt and screeching ending in what sounds like all the wrong chords. Then Associate Principal cellist, Christopher French, was spotlighted as he demonstrated some unusual styles of playing the instrument solo, including one that sounded much like a Country Western fiddler.
There was a tidbit from Offenbach’s familiar, “Can-Can, followed by two segments from Saint-Saëns’, “Carnival of the Animals,” as Mitchell instructed the audience in how to listen for the slowness of the tortoises, and the hee-haws of the donkeys that are represented in the piece. There was yet another musical take on the braying donkeys in Mendelssohn’s, A Dance of Clowns from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Then there was an Elgar selection popularly known as “Dan the Dog,” and Mitchell reveled in explaining how the music tells the story of a dog plunging into a river to retrieve a stick thrown by its master. For lovers of Bartok there was the Intermezzo interrotto from his ”Concerto for Orchestra.” This work, written toward the end of the composer’s life, was structured to poke gentle fun at Bartok’s musical rival, Shostakovich, by occasionally introducing a harsh, strident musical phrase more typical of Shostakovich, and contrasting it with Bartok’s more clearly melodic overall style.
An audience favorite was the delightful Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.” The melody was familiar to those who remembered the dancing hippos in tutus from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” or Allen Sherman’s amusing 1963 record hit, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” Next came Debussy’s, Golliwogg’s Cakewalk from “Le Coin Des Enfants” (The Children’s Corner). With the orchestra’s fine performance, the ragtime-flavored work had an atmosphere as light and airy as the lovely, cool spring evening the audience was enjoying.
For those who were disappointed that the concert was largely bits and pieces that fit the overall theme of the night, perhaps the most pleasing selection was the full and uninterrupted performance of Kabalevsky’s, Suite from “The Comedians,” that closed the program. The squeals of delight from children romping about on the Pavilion lawn was just one more indication that the symphony had “tickled” many of those attending.
(The Courier 4.18.08)