From its dark and grandiose opening to its fantastical, rumbling Presto, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto is built to be a delight. Bookended by Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for String Orchestra and Brass and Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 – a composer whose style influenced Saint-Saëns – the program promised invigoration at least. But under the stiff baton of Hans Graf, the evening dragged.

While many of Saint-Saëns’ works from the 1850s and 60s are belabored, his early piano concertos fly lightly, even in the moonless minor keys. French pianist Lise de la Salle, making her Houston Symphony debut with the concerto, offered a heavier interpretation of the piece than usually heard. Her touch was hard and authoritative, even in the quieter moments. De la Salle was technically sound – the last devilish octave flourish of the Presto was a marvel to watch – but the tinkling opening to the Allegro scherzando was messy. While she had a knack for centering on one note, or sometimes a small lyrical turn, the phrase on the whole didn’t have the same intention, which added a sense of incoherence. Graf’s leadership exacerbated this lack of cohesion, most evidently with the Presto when de la Salle set a thrilling tempo that Graf didn’t match. The quick back and forth between soloist and orchestra in first measures was an agonizing push and pull in tempos.

The Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony that followed began with a ragged brass entrance and kept with a slower tempo. Supposedly inspired by a trip to Cologne Cathedral, the symphony naturally lingers on some solemn, majestic themes. The brass warmed up in the latter of the five movements, and the lower strings reliably laid a rich foundation. The short principle cello solo in the third movement, performed with feeling by Brinton Averil Smith, was the high point of the symphony. The fourth movement, Feierlich, held some major jewels of layered sound, rounded out by the brass. But on the whole, the five movements dragged, and so it is perhaps no surprise that the third movement Nicht schnell was the moment Graf’s conducting excelled. Rhythmically precise, clear and exact, Graf does not bend any rules when he conducts, even when it might be in the music’s favor. 

First and best on the program, Konzertmusik was broodingly poetic. It comes from a maturing period of Hindemith’s music, and while this work still adheres to the chromatic scale, the melodic structure is layered and extended so that lyrical, diatonic lines surface here and there. Graf began the piece abruptly and seemed to catch the horns off guard, but his stiff style complemented Hindemith’s complexity as the piece went on. Like the Schumann, the brass warmed with time, and the later solos were big and bright. The trombone and trumpet sections especially achieved a hefty, glowing timbre in the multi-sectioned Part II, “Lebhaft—Langsam—Im ersten Zeitmass”. But with Graf’s curt cut-off, I was reminded poetic sound can be fleeting.