Review: Houston Symphony stages a different ‘Spring’

Review: Houston Symphony stages a different ‘Spring’

HOUSTON CHRONICLE
MAY 21, 2018
BY ERIC SKELLY

The Houston Symphony brought its 2017-18 subscription season to a close this past weekend with a program that offered a study in contrasts.

As heard in Jones Hall, the program offered a star guest soloist in two works by Mozart in a purist, traditional approach to performing classical music. But after the intermission, the shattering innovation of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” inspired the Houston Symphony to try some innovating of its own by way of employing multimedia to reinterpret Stravinsky’s audacious score. While the two approaches to performance were dramatically disparate, each proved apt for the works they sought to illuminate.

The first half of the evening was all about American pianist Emanuel Ax and his unpretentious, masterful way with Mozart. He was joined by Houston Symphony principals Jonathan Fischer, Mark Nuccio, Rian Craypo and William VerMeulen for Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn, marked by tight ensemble work and expressive solo passages from each of the principals in the second movement.

With Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, it was Ax’s turn to shine. Houston Symphony Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s affinity for Mozart set the tone with fluid, transparent textures in the orchestra. When Ax made his first entrance well into the first movement, he matched the orchestra’s fluid tone and sensitivity, and brought a fleet, seemingly effortless, un-showy virtuosity to the third movement. A Chopin Nocturne encore ended a first half of traditional music-making that simply relied on the scores to stand on their own.

The program’s second half was dramatically different. Stylistically, Stravinsky would, at a later point in his career, embrace neo-classicism and compose music that would look back to Mozart. But he hadn’t gotten there yet when he wrote “The Rite of Spring.” Full of jarring rhythms and dissonances, this visceral, primal music seems galaxies away from the gentle sonic world of Mozart. Orozco-Estrada’s reading of this score emphasized lyricism and rhythmic precision, but also allowed the large orchestral forces — especially the percussion and brass — to cut loose.

The audience’s visual focus, however, was not on the orchestra but on the large screen suspended above it. To the right of the orchestra was a small, makeshift stage where solo dancer Yuka Oishi performed live, and at first, there was concern that this performance would become a three-ring circus. But it quickly became clear that the audience was not intended to watch Oishi live, but rather her image projected live amid abstract digital animation on the screen.

Created by Klaus Obermaier in collaboration with Ars Electronica Futurelab, the video element reinterpreted Stravinsky’s musical depiction of pagan ritual as a commentary on dehumanization in the digital age. The exquisitely choreographed Oishi was transported into a digital realm in which she found herself caught up in a digital vortex one moment, then multiple iterations of her fell through digital space the next. In the end, a river of ones and zeroes flowed under and then over and around her, disintegrating her and reconstituting her into something no longer human. All this was choreographed to Stravinsky’s elemental, ominous score.

Some audience members were overheard to say they felt the film element was too distracting. However, the audience as a whole reacted to the Stravinsky portion with even more enthusiasm than they did the very warmly received Mozart section, which would have been overwhelmed by this live film and animation amalgam. Mozart rightly got the traditional approach, while the multimedia treatment was saved for “The Rite of Spring,” a work that’s big and bold enough to fight for its fair share of attention.

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