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Review: Houston Symphony stages a different ‘Spring’

MAY 21, 2018

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.

SSO with Emanuel Ax: mastery coupled with humanity

By Bernard Jacobson | The Seattle Times

When Emanuel Ax plays Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, any participating orchestra’s principal cellist can expect to be accorded an equal place in the spotlight. It was heartwarming, at Benaroya Hall on Thursday evening, to observe the pianist’s insistent inclusion of Efe Baltacigil in his acceptance of the audience’s plaudits. Read more …

John Adams’ ‘Absolute Jest’ in San Francisco

By Mark Swed | Los Angeles Times

When John Adams was a young composer and conductor in San Francisco in the early ’70s, he would often perform the experimental music of John Cage and other radicals, which was the hip thing to do at the time. But he has said that all that avant-garde business could leave him musically dissatisfied, and he’d go home and put on recordings of late Beethoven string quartets.
Read more …

Next Concerts

    August 22, 2018

    La Jolla Summerfest

    Conrad Prebys Concert Hall

    La Jolla, CA

    BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b
    SCHOENBERG: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19
    MOZART: “Kagelstatt” Trio in E-flat Major, K. 498
    BRAHMS: Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60

    August 24, 2018

    La Jolla Summerfest (Finale)

    Balboa Theatre (with David Zinman)

    San Diego, CA

    ELGAR: Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 20
    BEETHOVE Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56
    ELGAR: Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47
    BEETHOVEN: Choral Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 80

    August 28, 2018

    Hollywood Bowl

    Hollywood Bowl (with Bramwell Tovey)

    Los Angeles, CA

    BEETHOVEN: Choral Fantasy
    ORFF: Carmina Burana

    August 30, 2018

    Hollywood Bowl

    Hollywood Bowl (with Bramwell Tovey)

    Los Angeles, CA

    BEETHOVEN: Choral Fantasy
    ORFF: Carmina Burana

    September 4, 2018

    Rheingau Musik Festival

    Alte Oper (Trio Performance with Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma)

    Frankfurt, Germany

    BRAHMS: Trio für Violine, Violoncello und Klavier Nr. 1 H-Dur op. 8
    BRAHMS: Trio für Violine, Violoncello und Klavier Nr. 2 C-Dur op. 87
    BRAHMS: Trio für Violine, Violoncello und Klavier Nr. 3 c-Moll op. 101

    September 6, 2018

    Wiener Musikverein

    Wiener Musikverein (Trio Performance with Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma)

    Vienna, Austria

    BRAHMS: Trio für Klavier, Violine und Violoncello Nr. 2 C-Dur, op. 87
    BRAHMS: Trio für Klavier, Violine und Violoncello Nr. 3 c-Moll, op. 101
    BRAHMS: Trio für Klavier, Violine und Violoncello Nr. 1 H-Dur, op. 8


    September 7, 2018

    Philharmonie de Paris

    Grande salle Pierre Boulez (Trio Performance with Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma)

    Paris, France

    BRAHMS: Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle n° 2
    BRAHMS: Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle n° 3
    BRAHMS: Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle n° 1

    September 9, 2018

    Barbican Hall

    Barbican Hall (Trio Performance with Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma)

    London, England

    BRAHMS: Piano Trio No 2 in C major
    BRAHMS: Piano Trio No 3 in C minor
    BRAHMS: Piano Trio No 1 in B major

NY Philharmonic

Artist-in-Residence: Emanuel Ax 2012/13.
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Audio Player

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Brahms: Music For 2 Pianos
Haydn: Piano Sonatas
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor
Mendelssohn: Piano Trios
Strauss: Enoch Arden


Video Player

Extract from masterclass given by Emanuel Ax on Beethoven Piano Sonatas and Variations. The student is Nicolas Van Poucke. The full masterclass is available on DVD from