In the hour before the Houston Symphony Orchestra began its recent final concert of the summer season at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Ira J. Black, member of the Performing Arts faculty of HCCS-Northwest College, offered the arriving audience a lecture on the musical selections on the program: Brahm’s Violin Concerto in D major,
Opus 77, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Opus 60. In describing the latter piece Mr. Black advised the audience that Dvořák’s approach to composition demonstrated the composer’s keen awareness that “…both joy and sadness are part of the human condition.” That caution not withstanding, I think it is safe to say that when conductor, Hans Graf, lifted his baton to start the program, he would begin a night of pure joy for the audience.
No small part of that joy would be the breathtaking performance of world-renowned violinist, James Ehnes, during the Brahm’s Violin Concerto. Adding to the excitement was the instrument played by the handsome soloist. It was no ordinary violin, but rather a
priceless 1715 Stradivarius. During the 1st movement’s Allegro non troppo, as Ehnes’ flawless technique combined with the incredible purity of sound from the instrument, it was quickly evident the violin had fallen into perfect hands. Positioned very close to each other on the stage, the smooth, arm-waving motions of the conductor and violinist seemed to form a kind of delicate dance to accompany the music. The majestic sweep of the orchestra beautifully echoed the themes introduced by the soloist, and there was a feast of excellence from the orchestra’s strings. During the symphony’s purely solo moments it was fascinating to watch the fellow musicians as they intently gazed at the young star with deserved and reverential respect for his dazzling and truly athletic skill.
The Second Movement’s Adagio offered moments of gentle and seductive retreat from the vigorous climax of the First Movement. Finally, there came the thrilling intensity of the much more familiar Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace of the Third Movement,
and Ehnes closed with still more racing precision, dazzling fingering and smiling confidence. The audience erupted with appreciative cheers and applause, and during the intermission Woodlands resident, Albert McCoy, expressed amazement as to how Ehnes could perform such a monumental work entirely from memory. I echo that astonishment.
When maestro Graf returned to the podium it was time for the evening’s other offering, the Dvořák Symphony No. 6. Another showcase for strings it had the orchestra’s first violinist beaming with joy at the outset. The opening Allegro non tanto begins with proud elegance and moves on to pulsing escalations and the thrilling entry of the brass. Subtle
variations seemed always to return to the commanding power of the strings and the crowning glory of the brass approaching the powerful excitement of the movement’s conclusion. The Second Movement’s Adagio had a tenderly regal opening and an atmosphere of calm in its gently rolling majesty. The Third Movement’s Scherzo provided lashing excitement that reached fever pitch and sweeping grandeur at times, and then receded like gentle waves of the sea. The final movement’s Finale fully displayed the orchestra’s sharp collective unity under the watchful eye of conductor, Graf, who was clearly ever attentive to every section of his fine orchestra as he guided them to the thrilling climax. I recall that during Ira Black’s opening remarks he had stated his belief that, “The Houston Symphony is the only team that always has a winning season.” How right he was!