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New York
Perelman Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/28/2010 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Scherzo Fantastique, Op. 3
Henri Dutilleux: Timbres, Espace, Mouvement avec interlude
Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32 (With film created by Dr. Duncan Copp)

Women of the Houston Symphony Chorus, Charles Hausmann (Director), Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (Music Director and Conductor)

H. Graf (© Houston Symphony)

The Houston Symphony took a big chance for their one evening in New York, playing three 20th Century works, only two of which were familiar here. Adding to the dilemma was that every piece was parading as another art form altogether.

Henri Dutilleux’s Sounds, Space, Movement was a musical treatment of Vincent Van Gogh’s second most famous painting, the whirling, astronomical Starry Night. Gustav Holst also took on the heavens in his popular Planets, but the Houston Orchestra turned this into a video game show with 60 minutes of real, enhanced and simulated NASA shots of, yes, the planets.

And Stravinsky? His work turned nature into art. The early Sherzo Fantastique could have been called Flight of the Bumblebee Redux. First, Rimsky-Korsakov (of Bumblebee fame) helped him in the orchestration. More important, Stravinsky’s original prefaced that he was influenced by Maurice Maeterlinck’s Life of Bees. The first part showed the busy life around the hive, the middle was sunset and a mystical Queen Bee, and the end went back to the hive again. (Half a century later, Stravinsky denied that apiaries were an influence.)

Two of the pieces showed the merits of the Houston Symphony, and especially its Austrian-born conductor Hans Graf. Mr. Graf a marvel to look at on the podium, started with the Stravinsky, which demands the most meticulously trained orchestra. The buzzing strings and the pristine anti-Sacre pastorale in the middle were never rushed but given pleasant arboreal atmosphere.

Mr. Graf is well known for his closeness to Henri Dutilleux, who is not played enough in New York. Perhaps because the Frenchman never joined the Boulez school (“He is not equal to our times,” said Boulez), perhaps because his music is so personal. But he has written some of the most sensitive music of his period. of another composer, Jehan Alain’s Prayer for Mortals, has a delicacy and mystical feeling which no Boulezian could ever approach.

Happily, the composer has mended fences with Boulez, and is still writing his very personal, swirling pieces at the age of 94.

The work last night could have used–either in the program or on the screen behind the orchestra–the Van Gogh picture itself. (Dutilleux was struck only by the original, in our Metropolitan Museum of Art.) It was difficult to give an indication of the orchestra here, since violins and violas are omitted. But the playing was suitably atmospheric. The oboe d’amore solo was beautifully done, the brass made only a few fluffs, and that wonderful interlude for 12 cellos showed an ensemble which played faultlessly.

I hesitate to speak about Holst’s Planets, since the orchestral music was overwhelmed by a film made by the noted Duncan Copp. That was quite an effort, using topographic information, graphics from data, even a visualization flying over the volcano of Venus.

The problem was that Holst–who was fiercely interested in mysticism, both Western and Eastern–created in The Planets seven movements of incredible beauty. I cannot think of any British composer who used the orchestra as well as he did, one movement more picturesque and evocative than the next.

Now this puts the film-music in a quandary. For “Saturn, the bringer of old age”, Dr. Copp started with the cosmos itself. But now he youthfully swung back to showing planets, topographies, and curves, some in time with the cadences of the music, some not. “Jupiter” was, for Holst, the least planetary: the “bringer of jollity” was like a public school anthem, far more of Albion than astronomy.

Yet Dr. Copp still kept pulling our screen into planets coming and going. Jollity it was not. Poor beautiful “Venus” was depicted with what seemed Jackson Pollock color swirls and some of Dürer’s more savage lithographs.

Usually the full hour of The Planets goes by with astronomical speed, for Holst’s tone-painting was on the grandest of scales. Here, with one planet after another (and probably all “authentic” within computer visualization terms), the music seemed slower than ever. (Nor was it helped at all by great applause after each and every movement.)

I really tried to listen without looking, but closing my eyes was just as unreal as the gaping big screen behind the Houston Orchestra. And with Saturn resembling a large doughnut enclosing a scoop of vanilla ice cream, I gave up.

The guru behind the Houston Symphony several decades ago, Leopold Stokowski, would have loved the originality of the idea. Personally, I felt it was literally dis-concerting. Music is music, NASA films are NASA films. Too bad, since Mr. Graf seems to have an excellent orchestra, and his choice of music was better than most visitors here. Next time, let him bring his musicians and his artistry, and leave the visual heavens back in Houston.

Harry Rolnick



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