It was like an exquisite fairytale tour of the continent for lucky audiences at last weekend’s Houston Symphony concert titled, “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey.” A full house packed Jones Hall, and with top ticket prices above one hundred dollars it was not exactly a poor man’s trip to Europe.
But what a fabulous trip it would be, especially with the return of the orchestra’s retired and much-loved Pops Conductor Emeritus, Michael Krajewski, who playfully referred to this appearance as his 4th Annual Farewell Concert. The European theme notwithstanding, Krajewski quickly had the audience in the palm of his hand beginning the program with a tour of America launched, of course, with a rousing “Star Spangled Banner.” The ensuing trip would open with the racing strings, thundering kettle drums, and thrilling brass during Jerome Moss’ vision of the American West in the Main Title music from “The Big Country.” That piece was a perfect lead-in to Grofé’s gently trotting “On the Trail” mule ride from the 3rd movement of his visual epic, “Grand Canyon Suite,” and featuring a stunning opening violin solo passage from Co-Concertmaster, Eric Halen. The sweetly delicate opening phrases of the R.A. Bass arrangement of, “Shenandoah,” would then set the stage for the symphonic grandeur that would follow from this masterwork. It was lightly decorated by soft chimes and bells from percussion, and featured a stunning trumpet solo. This first half of the program concluded beautifully with the clever R. Wendel arrangement, “From Sea to Shining Sea.” Opening with “America the Beautiful,” that piece took the audience on a musical cross-country tour from west to east, featuring such familiar tunes as, “San Francisco,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Chicago,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Carolina in the Morning,” and then closing with a joyful, “New York, New York.” But somewhere in between, it seemed the hand-clapping Houston audience favorite was clearly, “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
Beginning the featured Part Two of the concert, Maestro Krajewski, looking fit and trim as ever, stepped forward to introduce the man he called, “America’s foremost authority on European travel.” With that, the attention shifted to a gentleman well known to PBS viewers, the amiable and knowledgeable travel expert, Rick Steves, who explained that the musical organization of the project was designed to focus on the music of what he called the Romantic Era of the late 1800’s, a time when the seeds of freedom inspired by our own American Revolution across the sea, were then taking root in countries all across Europe as the common man sought liberty from the ruling class of the nobility. Steves then began a series of narrations that would accompany the splendid travelogue videos screened above the brilliant orchestra, while he guided one and all through countries and composers that included Austria (J. Strauss Jr.), Germany (Wagner), the Czech Republic (Smetana), Italy (Verdi), Great Britain (Elgar), Norway (Grieg), and France (Saint-Saëns).
The orchestral delights that accompanied each nation spotlighted included “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” (Strauss), the “Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin,” (Wagner), “The Moldau” from Smetana’s “My Fatherland,” Verdi’s “Triumphal March from Aida,” Elgar’s familiar, “Pomp and Circumstance,” and Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from the “Suite No.1 of Peer Gynt.” As the splendid orchestra performed the works associated with each country, the audience was treated to sublime travelogue views across Europe that captured magnificent landscapes, rivers, streams, villages, churches, traditional costumes, castles, dancers, plazas, parks, mountain climbers, paintings, murals, frescos, statues, fountains, street scenes and cafes, exquisite architecture, Roman ruins and aqueducts, canals, vineyards, knights in armor, rainbows, misty fiords, traditional foods, and lush gardens at every turn.
This memorable feast for the eye and ear was brought to a fine conclusion with a celebration of the present day European Union as the orchestra played the E.U.’s adopted “Anthem of Europe,” based on Beethoven’s final movement of the 9th Symphony, “Ode to Joy.” Not surprisingly, there appeared to be universal joy on the faces of the departing audience. BRAVO!
A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of DAVID DOW BENTLEY III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.