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A Night at the Houston Symphony [Sep. 25th, 2011|01:18 am]
Tonight I attended this concert:

It was, dare I say, a rather magnificent evening. Admittedly, a Carlisle Floyd curtain-raiser was curiously uninvolving, but after that came a fascinating and intense Christopher Rouse piece ("Odna Zhizn") followed by a joyous performance of the Liszt 2nd Piano Concerto in which soloist Olga Kern and conductor Hans Graf were in perfect accord.

After intermission came a world-class and opulent performance of Richard Strauss' sprawling and excessive but orchestrally sumptuous "Ein Heldenleben" which I can only praise for its tremendously fine playing, ensemble and interpretation.

I've been a Hans Graf fan for over 20 years, and while I'm vaguely aware that he doesn't seem to be as much revered in this town as I might expect, the times I've gone to see him conduct here have only solidified the appreciation I first experienced hearing his performances in other places, including his NY Philharmonic debut which I attended when I lived in NYC. He is clear and efficient without extraneous posturing. But he also creates very intense, focused, honestly committed music with both momentum and fully realized expression, which he achieves with equal respect for music and musicians. He is a sensitive accompanist (his interaction with Ms. Kern was almost symbiotic, making the coordination between orchestra and soloist jubilantly in sync at all times) and his leadership of the Strauss was a model of achieving every possible nuance without ever exaggerating or over-emphasizing or stopping the flow of the work.

The orchestra played spectacularly, combining precision of ensemble with a full sense of adventure, rubato and sensitivity. It was thrilling and yet crystal clear. Even the observance of dynamics was achieved to oustanding effect (there was one moment, for example, when a huge brass chord diminuendoed dramatically to reveal expressive strings -- they were already playing before the diminuendo, but the effect was as though we passed through a curtain of brass and entered into a room full-bodied strings on the other side -- the brass maintained the chord with full conviction and with the exact same balance of voicing while as a section magically dropping in volume with both alacrity and nuance -- this sort of thing doesn't just happen -- it takes fine players and fine conducting to create a moment like that).

This is another chance for me to say publicly that I think Graf is an underrated treasure. Even in the Rouse, with which he was clearly less intimately familiar, he still led an impeccably realized performance of precise ensemble and textural clarity.

But in the Liszt and again in the Strauss, he did in full measure what I've so long admired about him: in a fairly undemonstrative fashion, he led a stage-full of expert musicians to be able to make great music collectively together, to achieve that unique magic which at heart orchestral music is about: a transcendent effort of playing together confidently and exuberantly, bravely and triumphantly, This orchestra was a stunning wall of sound when that was required, and also a sensitively coordinated collective of individual and sectional expression in moments of rubato and expressivity. In the Liszt, they interlaced with the piano soloist as though it were chamber music. They were balanced. Individual sections shone. Soloists were heard and honored. Details emerged with surety and conviction. With Graf at the podium, everyone in that orchestra, individually and collectively, got to achieve greatness in all three works.

This is what an orchestra is for. This is what conducting is about. And Hans Graf really does it well. Bravo to him tonight, to the truly first-class performance of Ms. Kern, and especially to the Houston Symphony, who played tonight like they need not feel second to any orchestra anywhere. Here in the less-than-ideal Jones Hall truly great music was achieved tonight. That's why orchestral performances are still valuable in this crazy world, and I could ask for no more nourishment from any orchestra concert than I got tonight from Maestro Graf, Olga Kern and the Houston Symphony. Bravo to all.