Last Thursday, on a perfectly splendid night in Texas, the thousands of people in attendance at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion were about to enjoy a memorial concert and celebration of that perfectly splendid woman’s life.
The initial part of the evening was an especially poignant tribute as her large and loving family surrounded the late, great lady’s husband, founder of The Woodlands, George Mitchell, for the dedication of a small park on the Pavilion plaza. Centerpiece of the pocket park is the bronze wisp of smoke aptly titled “Smokedance,” a sculpture by Dale Garman that had been commissioned by Mrs. Mitchell herself. With pleasant benches and lovely flowerbeds, the restful area was being donated by the Mitchell family, and dedicated as “Smokedance Garden” in Cynthia’s memory.
The Mitchell’s youngest son, Grant, briefly introduced the large family to the crowd, and reflected on how back in 1976 his mother had joined her daughter in Austin for a delightful outdoor performance of the Austin Ballet at Zilker Hillside Theatre. His mother had spoken of “eating take-out chicken and sipping wine on a quilt, surrounded by families, children in swimsuits, Frisbees and dogs.” The young Mr. Mitchell went on to say how his mother “loved the fact that everyone, not just the elite, could enjoy the performance,” and he explained that it was that experience, along with her love of the transformational power of the arts, that had inspired Mrs. Mitchell to urge her husband to plan such a venue for the growing community of The Woodlands.
At the close of the brief ceremony the young children and grandchildren of the family were invited beside the sculpture where numerous small white boxes were waiting to be opened. On the count of three the youngsters opened their boxes, and to the delight of the crowd hundreds of live butterflies were released to flutter skyward in celebration.
The celebration then continued on the pavilion’s main stage as the Houston Symphony presented one of the finest orchestral concerts I have ever had the pleasure of attending. The evening program’s cover had a very gay and lovely sketch of the honoree that was designed by the Mitchell’s granddaughter, Kayla, and included a few butterflies of its own.
Then it was on to a night of musical favorites of the late Mrs. Mitchell, all skillfully conducted by Robert Franz. I was honored to find my press seats for the concert placed our entourage right in the midst of orchestra seating for the extended Mitchell family in attendance. Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute,” led off with elegant power appropriate to the occasion, as its sweeping majesty rolled out across the house and up to the lawn where, just as Cynthia had envisioned it, families were relaxing on the grass and enjoying the music. Next came Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aida, with its ever-rising excitement showing off the orchestra’s skill and the pavilion acoustics.
Mrs. Mitchell’s affection for Bizet’s “Carmen” was well represented. Selections from its “Suite No. 1” included the compelling mystery of the “Prelude,” and “Aragonaise,” the haunting sweetness and delicacy of the “Intermezzo,” (which, on this occasion, seemed like a soothing balm for every human ailment), and the thrilling excitement of “Les Toréadors,” that had my mind racing back 30 years to a summer in Spain. A “Carmen” highlight of the evening was the exquisite performance of the “Habanera,” by gifted soprano, Danica Dawn Johnston. The stunning blonde wore an equally stunning strapless and floor length gown of bright cranberry-red satin. But it was her heavenly voice and graceful presence that stole the show in this selection, as well as in Bizet’s “Seguidilla,” also from “Carmen.” Hers is the most commanding and brilliant soprano voice I have heard since reviewing Renée Fleming’s 2003 opening night of Houston Grand Opera’s “La Traviata.” Brava!
From Bizet the orchestra turned its talents to Offenbach’s overture for “Orpheus in the Underworld,” weaving an utterly magic spell that concluded with an infectious and pulsing finale that had the audience clapping along to the music of the “Galop,” more familiar to many as the “Can-Can.”
The final work of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien,” a piece that seemed to wrap its musical arms around the audience as it built to the excitement of its pounding conclusion. But just prior to that, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber was highlighted in the beautiful, “Suite from Evita,” with its lush and sweeping review of the show’s musical themes. Miss Johnston returned to the stage to perform the song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” and make it very much her own. She displayed just the kind of vocal perfection that could properly honor Cynthia Woods Mitchell. Somehow I felt Cynthia’s spirit must have been hovering over us with those very words: “Don’t Cry For Me.”
For information about the coming season at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, visit the website at www.woodlandscenter.org or call (281) 363-3300.