Texas Classical Review » Blog Archive » Valčuha and Bell bring power and sparkle to Shostakovich, Sibelius
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 has one of the most striking overtures in the orchestral repertoire, but it was blocked on Friday.
As the Houston Symphony dug into those sharp phrases, concertgoers returning from intermission slammed into their seats. Next, a Jones Hall usher fought two elderly guest walkers down the aisle, loudly bumping one of them into something in the way.
Conductor Juraj Valčuha, conducting his second program as the orchestra’s music director, looked around at the noise, but he didn’t stop and start again, as he would have liked could do it.
It was up to Valčuha and company to regain the initiative, and they did. The orchestra’s passionate attacks and lean, bright sound released the music’s electricity, almost making up for what was lost in the upset opening. As the epic work unfolded, its ferocity came through with crackling intensity – and the orchestra matched this with the quiet power it gave to Shostakovich’s lamentations and introspections.
In the opening movement, as the violins first played the broad, muffled theme that floats above pulsating chords, their finesse and clear sound managed to evoke both stillness and longing. . But when the music screamed, Valčuha urged players to lean on her most powerful turns of phrase.
While the middle section of the movement brought back the violence, the bite and power of the orchestra gave it a visceral force. In the unison explosion that reaches the movement’s climax, the orchestra went wild with such force and sonority that it seemed to practically hurl the music at the audience.
But when the winds – particularly lead flautist Aralee Dorough, lead clarinetist Mark Nuccio and lead horn William VerMeulen – came through in the return of that violin theme, they briefly introduced a warmer, more human tone.
The cellos and basses immediately erased this with the rowdy start of the second movement, which leaned so hard that their bows first crackled against the strings. Valčuha urged the rest of the orchestra to bring the same edge to Shostakovich’s sarcasm, from the growls of the winds to the bite of the plucked strings.
In the opening phrases of the Largo, employing only part of the string section, the group’s quiet firmness showed that a relatively small number of players can have an impact beyond their numbers. As the rest of the strings joined in, Valčuha led them to swell the music, exuding fervor – the first of several powerful crescendos that made Shostakovich’s meditations as electrifying in their own way as the outbursts of others. movements. Introducing the voice’s plaintive solo theme in the desert, lead oboist Jonathan Fischer began delicately, then grew even more, making the melody all the more fragile and poignant.
The orchestra erased the stillness again with the opening salvo of the finale. Shostakovich and Valčuha unleashed the driving energy and rumbling power of the orchestra like nothing before, and the crushing weight of the horns brought this to a climax. The relentless end of the symphony came across as gripping as its beginning should have been.
It wasn’t as if Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, which came before intermission, called for anything like the punch that Shostakovich’s Fifth did. But Valčuha and the orchestra also triggered background waves there.
The band not only punctuated Joshua Bell’s bloody, even explosive playing of the solo part, they complemented the sparkle he brought to the slow movement.
Bell gave sparkle and spontaneity to the ethereal opening, but quickly launched into the mercurial changes of the first movement, moving in moments from lyrical expansiveness to virtuosic abandon. His most powerful shots had a punch and toughness that would have suited Shostakovich.
But Bell savored the expansiveness and brilliance of the slow motion, and he swept away the pyrotechnics of the finale with bravery and galloping energy galore. Although he didn’t play an encore, he did sign autographs at intermission, perhaps marking another step toward post-pandemic normality.
The concert opened with the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s brilliant idea, commissioned by the orchestra to mark the advent of Valčuha.
In his program note, Muhly explains that he greets the occasion at the beginning of the piece beginning with the player next to Valčuha: concertmaster Yoonshin Song. She first plays a fiery jig-like solo – not that her meter is so even – and the action gradually spills out into the orchestra, adding all sorts of scintillating action of its own.
As the 11-minute scherzo progresses, speed and sparkle remain pervasive – if only in the background at times – but other colors and textures come into play, heavy chords swapped between the lower sections of the orchestra at the chatter for the brass at a leap. interjection of the timpani.
On Friday, concertmaster Song casually opened the piece, and the rest of the orchestra produced an ever-changing flurry of energy. The orchestra was so busy that it might be impossible for anyone but Muhly and Valčuha to know if everything was in place. But the sum total was a happy noise.
The Houston Symphony repeats the program at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall. www.houstonsymphony.org