What does a landscape sound like? The second concert in Houston Symphony’s Classical Season programs three works that capture American sentiment from wide-open plains to urban jungles. Contemporaries Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, American pioneers of the mid 20th century, are off-set by Karim Al-Zand, whose City Scenes was composed in 2006, and the aural scenery is striking.

This is the second concert in a row that Houston Symphony has opened with a daring, modern work and eased back in time to more familiar – and safer – repertoire. City Scenes celebrates the scale, moving chromatically up and down in a snappy five-note phrase before jumping down an interval and repeating the figure, sometimes moving from strings to woodwinds to brass. The effect produces a dazzling swath of timbre color.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

But these remarkable colors are obscured by an accompanying film – a collaboration between photographer Libbie Masterson and filmmaker Ford Gunter – played on a screen behind the orchestra that featured scenes of Houston in fast motion. Rather than complement the music, its dizzying images of traffic surging and jerking through Houston served rather to disorient and emphasize a stereotype of modern music as necessarily jarring. 

Both Copland and Barber were faced with the task of breaking in contemporary classical music on the radio. The grandly styled symphonies they composed cut across airwaves and warmed American homes. Composed in 1939, Barber’s Violin Concerto stands as a remarkable example of long melodic lines and elegiac phrasing that slices even the thickest radio buzz.

Sarah Chang performed with a marked attitude of stage possession, whipping her bow from phrases, rolling her shoulders, and tossing her long hair flamboyantly. The softer mezzo-forte dynamic opening the concerto is difficult to balance with a full orchestra, but it makes for an ethereal beginning. Chang’s strong presence made this delicate introduction a reality, but the orchestra swallowed many of her wild runs to the top of the fingerboard later. By the third movement though – a furious moto perpetuo of unrelenting triplets – Chang was fully in control, molding phrases with sensational direction in the midst of the flying tempo.

Copland once remarked that American artists were tasked, simply, with the work of making art possible, and his sweeping Symphony no. 3 certainly achieves this goal. Conductor Cristian Măcelaru moves more stiffly than music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, but nevertheless still expresses musical empathy. Pushing and pulling Copland’s grand orchestration in the first movement, Măcelaru often extended his left hand and closed his fingers, drawing his hand back into himself as if he were taking hold of a line.

The parallel octaves in the second and third movement – so high and exposed – proved a challenge to the violin sections. They fell just short of moving seamlessly as a unit. This was not true of the cello section, however, which held together with astounding harmony and magnetism. Likewise, the brass section announced the familiar Fanfare for the Common Man theme with majestic pomp, ringing confidently in the manner that has made it such an American staple. 

The progression from Al-Zand’s rhythmic metropolis to Copland’s yawning canyons sketched a memorable, contemporary picture of America. Houston Symphony’s impulse to go multi-media has yet to convince me that it is not just an attempt to make classical music easier for an audience to comprehend. But what this program proves, at the very least, is that great classical works like Copland, Barber, and Al-Zand don’t need any narrative padding.