For those who love traditional classical music, tonight’s third in a series of three Houston Symphony concerts at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion will offer Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21,” Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64,” and Schuman’s “Showcase: A Short Display for Orchestra.”
But for fans of symphonic music who harbor a secret longing to have concerts seasoned with “hip-hop” or “rap” accents, the orchestra’s recent offering of “Rockapella Goes Retro” was probably just what the doctor ordered. Rockapella, of course, is the popular quintet that evolved for five Brown University students more than 20 years ago when the lads decided to have some fun with the a cappella musical style.
Before Rockapella came onstage the audience was treated to several selections under the skilled direction of conductor for the evening, Michael Krajewski. “Stand By Me” was an ever-escalating musical journey with gentle strings, proud brass, and delicious percussion that brought the piece to ultimate levels of excitement reminiscent of Ravel’s “Bolero.” “Disco at Pops,” (for which Krajewski apologized: “Don’t tell anyone we played disco!”) featured such familiar tunes as “I Will Survive,” “The Hustle,” and “YMCA.”
Then came a wonderful Healey arrangement featuring a medley of Beatles tunes titled “Love is All You Need.” There was a regal “Yesterday,” a sometimes delicate, sometimes richly explosive, “All My Lovin’,” a slithering “Day Tripper,” that moved like a Texas rattlesnake, and a splendid “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that sparkled like a jewel. There was a seductive “Something in the Way She Moves,” savage rhythms for “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a handsome “Let It Be,” and then an “If I Give My Love to You,” that seemed to wrap its arms around the audience. In total, it was an exquisite celebration of The Beatles’ songbook, and showed the enduring power and prolific extent of their portfolio.
Next it was on to the fine voices of Rockapella, which sadly were often over-amplified during the performance of such 60’s and 70’s hits as “Tonight,” “Shambala,” and “Rock the Boat.” “Here Comes the Sun,” was joyfully delivered, and these enthusiastic and clean-cut guys had some smooth solo moments during that number. “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” was an example of the group’s trademark “mouth-popping” into the microphones, creating noises which, while at first intriguing, quickly became annoying in large doses. (Young groupies in the audience would, of course, disagree.) As an example, in the song, “The Beat Goes On,” there was a clear sense the beat went on way too long. But it was also clear that these gentlemen enjoy their work, and they even demonstrated some smooth bits of choreography during “Dance With Me.” Encores included the pleasantly audible “Wonderful World,” and “Up on the Roof.” Longtime fans were delighted when the guys concluded with the title tune of the PBS television show with which they were long associated: “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
Now let us turn our attention to last week’s second in this trio of HSO performances at the pavilion. Titled “Viva Filarmónica,” this concert of works by Hispanic composers was an absolutely stunning evening of symphonic excitement under the fierce baton of gifted Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra. She seemed to double as professor of music as she instructed the audience during informative introductions to each work. First on the program was the galloping excitement of the Chávez’ composition, “Sinfonía India.” It seemed, at times, to be racing with the wind, and featured a virtual field day for percussion. The very unique work that followed was Piazolla’s “Tangazo.” Highlighted by unusual sounds (especially from strings and percussion), it moved musically from serene calmness to fits of stately and thrilling high energy. The conductor moved like a graceful swan, and the camera work (for the two large projection screens on either side of the proscenium) was well choreographed to follow the featured musicians.
Closing Part One of the program was Rodrigo’s, “Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra,” featuring the evening’s remarkable guest performer, classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas. This difficult-to-top performance was astonishing, and the exciting piece could well have been placed at the very end of the program. With matinee idol good looks, musical passion, and dazzlingly flawless technique, the soloist amazed the audience with his skill. His elegant and shimmering dark suit was matched by the shimmering high-speed fingering across the strings of his wonderful instrument. The romantic second movement “Adagio,” made me want to revisit the exquisite Miklós Rózsa score for the film, “El Cid.” Audience cheers following the third movement’s “Allegro Gentile,” were rewarded with a fine tango-flavored encore from the artist.
Following the intermission there were still more exciting Spanish classics beginning with the sensual intoxication of Márquez’ “Danzón No. 2,” rhythmically punctuated by the crisp snap of the claves. Then came the pounding pulsations and frightening atmosphere of Ibarra’s powerful “Sinfonía No. 2,” sometimes spooky, sometimes dreamlike, and full of savage ferocity. The concert closed with the explosive, “Sensemayá” (Song of the Snake), by perhaps Mexico’s finest composer, Silvestre Revueltas. Seemingly influenced by Stravinsky’s groundbreaking 1913 masterpiece, “Le Sacre du Printemps,” this last piece, composed in 1938, was harshly dissonant at times. This critic would have preferred the guitarist had closed the program.
Tonight’s aforementioned Houston Symphony concert will be at 8 p.m. in the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. No tickets are required for the free mezzanine and lawn seating, while preferred seating ($15) is available at www.ticketmaster.com. Picnics are welcome, but beverages must be purchased on site.