If a critic was reviewing a concert during which tiles were falling from the concert hall ceiling, should they acknowledge the distraction or pretend it didn’t happen? Repeated digital glitches prevented me from feeling I had heard the second half of the second night of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s debut conducting the Houston Symphony, which was a shame because the orchestra seemed to step boldly into the more dynamic material, Beethoven’s First Symphony and Salonen’s own Fog, based on the prelude from Bach’s Third Violin Partita. I heard most of the music, but only while waiting for the next tile to fall. The technical problems were acknowledged by symphony Executive Director John Magnum, and of course, these things happen. A clean copy of the video was made available the following day, but my listening experience was unfortunately fragmented by technology.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Houston Symphony
© Houston Symphony

The first half of the program, which was also performed the evening before and the afternoon following, was comprised of Bach renderings by Otto Klemperer, Anton Webern and Luciano Berio. In 1935, Klemperer orchestrated the aria “Bist du bei mir” from Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach, itself is an arrangement of an aria from Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel's opera Diomedes. As was the fashion of the day (cf. Stokowski, Disney), Klemperer’s Bach was big and lush, the ensemble – masked and spaced across the large stage – bigger than anything Bach ever had at his disposal. Klemperer’s Bach was richer, rounder, made to seem all the grander by the camera’s pans and zooms. They moved without pause into Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercata a 6 voci from Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV1079 (also from 1935). While still employing the full orchestra, it was more spacious, events occurring in greater isolation. Opening with a brief trombone phrase, the piece grew to a sort of canon ultimately reclaiming, under Salonen’s baton, the lushness of the Klemperer but with more interesting textures.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Houston Symphony
© Houston Symphony

Listening to a succession of Bach arrangements is rather like Dostoevsky’s challenge not to think about polar bears. It’s best not to dwell on what they’re not doing, to put the Bach out of your thoughts, even if, as Fyodor said, “you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Berio’s 2001 setting of the closing Contrapunctus XIX from Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV1080, held closer to the spirit of the master even while imagining the spirit leaving the master’s body. The austerity of Bach’s music was better reflected here. Berio didn’t shy from the lines upon lines, nor did Salonen, at last allowing the architecture to stand unadorned. Doing so is more in Berio’s nature than the previous composers, it’s true, but it was also necessary for his agenda, to allow the famously unfinished fugue to dissolve into celestial harmony, playing on the appealing and often repeated fiction that Bach died at his drafting table while working on what is perhaps the most masterful of his masterpieces. (It’s notable, too, that Berio created the piece at the age of 86, two years before his own death.)

Yoonshin Song
© Houston Symphony
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If the orchestra seemed to be battling against restraint for the first half, all bets were off when they launched into the second half (to which I returned the following day). The Third Partita prelude was played at a clip by concertmaster Yoonshin Song, and sounded wonderful in the resonant hall, all the more alive by the audience at Jones Hall for the Performing Art being kept to 25% capacity. It segued rather magically into Salonen’s Fog, written for Frank Gehry’s 90th birthday and given its first public performances during this three-concert run. It, too, recalled Walt Disney, although with more charm. The piece began very nearly fluttering with fairy dust but quickly expanded into bold counterpoint in percussion and the low reeds and strings, then recalled the opening motif with greater gravitas, only to be lifted again by harp and flutes, then a quick piano interlude and short, suspenseful plateaus. It was a busy piece, maybe too much so (in that regard, perhaps reflecting its honoree) but in both construction and execution surprisingly well articulated.

The musicians seemed to relish the vigor of Beethoven's First Symphony. It was refreshing, too, to hear music more or less unadulterated by rearrangement and with the attack and drama that the first half lacked (which, true, had much to do with the weaves of the original fabrics, but not everything to do with it). The gallops were brisk and the swells succinct. It was an altogether convincing performance of a more youthful, almost ebullient, Beethoven. It didn’t quite fit the program, but served well to uplift it.


This performance was reviewed from the Houston Symphony video stream

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