Music offers audiences transport to myriad places through diverse means. Houston Symphony’s program, starring John Corigliano’s Conjurer: Concerto for percussionist and string orchestra and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, crept through mists and emerged brilliantly at each work’s end. 

Fabien Gabel © Gaetan Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gaetan Bernard

With five works on the program, it made for a busy evening of moving between worlds. Houston Symphony is in the midst of celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centennial and opened the program with a perfunctory but surprisingly brisk-paced performance of his overture to Candide. Duty to Bernstein out of the way, percussionist Colin Currie alighted the stage for an inspired encounter with Corigliano’s Conjurer. The name of the concerto is apt. Three movements follow an instrumental progression through wood, metal and skin. Each opens with the kind of cadenza that makes its soloist bend and quake. Percussion instruments line the stage from left to right – xylophones, gongs, African talking drums, timpani and beyond. Beginning on stage left, surrounded by wood, Currie began his own progression through human emotion, grinning, frowning, softly gazing as if he could see sounds floating out from the instruments he struck.

Jacques Ibert’s swelling Escales (Ports of Call) shouldn’t complement the penetrating timbre of Corigliano’s Conjurer, making it all the more delightful when it did by calling attention to a uniform impression of experience. The work often sounds like a painting from the early 20th century, a strange synesthesia between visual and aural beauty, softening lines to give the overall gist of a thing rather than the thing itself.

By the time Louis Aubert’s Habanera arrived, knowing the Ravel was still to come, the program felt overcrowded. But within the first few measures, when violist Joan DerHovsepian played a glowing, crooning solo, it redeemed its place on the program and set the scene for Ravel to submerge the night into the mist once more.

When thinking of ballet at the turn of the century, the name that most readily comes to mind is Stravinsky, who shocked the world with his Rite of Spring in 1913. Ravel met Stravinsky in 1909, the same year that Diaghilev commissioned Daphnis et Chloé for the Ballet Russes, and the two became collaborators who, among other things, shared works-in-progress with each other. But listeners will be hard pressed to hear any of Stravinsky in Daphnis et Chloé, which begins floating as if in a dream, slowly emerging into lush melody and building to a resplendent glow.

Pressing his weight into the podium and closing his eyes with feeling, conductor Fabien Gabel looked to be waiting for this last piece. After cutting a fast tempo in the Bernstein (it was exciting, no doubt about it) and expertly supporting Currie as he traversed Corigliano’s formidable but beautiful concerto, Gabel stepped into his own spotlight. He is an unambiguous conductor, his gestures straightforward and to the point, but he rocked on his toes as the strings and winds rolled up and down melodies, and he stretched from toe to fingertip when the brass punched through the haze brightly. When the last note faded away, he smiled widely, as if to celebrate captaining the program’s successful voyage into the mist – and back out.

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