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Romantics through the Ages

Jones Hall
04/08/2010 -  and April 10, 11
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet
Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, Op. 14
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

James Ehnes (violin)
Houston Symphony, Christian Arming (conductor)

J. Ehnes (© Benjamin Ealovega)

Austrian conductor Christian Arming led the Houston Symphony in a popular trifecta with mixed results. While the program looked like a foolproof crowd-pleaser, each of the pieces is a good deal more difficult to pull off than is normally acknowledged, and, while Arming was on target for many moments of the concert, the truly engaging aspects of the performance stemmed primarily from the instrumentalists. The orchestra played the numerous tricky technical passages in each work with precision, and the charismatic James Ehnes wowed in the Barber concerto. What was missing was passion and direction in slow, subtle areas, often taken at unusually measured tempos.

The opening woodwind chorale of Tchaikovsky's overture is a great example. Though marked "Andante non tanto quasi moderato" and piano, Arming's languid tempo (more a "Lento" or "Mesto") and sotto voce dynamics (more a pianississimo) painted an unflattering picture of Friar Lawrence. Part of the ingenuity of Tchaikovsky's musical representation of Shakespeare's drama is the importance he puts on this theme, reflecting the character's ubiquity as a catalyst in practically every plot development in the drama. Sadly, there was no direction given for phrasing of the chorale, a problem that the tempo and dynamic choices exacerbated. In the end, the theme sounded impotent rather than important.

Similar problems arose in the majority of the lyrical episodes in all three works. The statements of the great "love theme" in the Tchaikovsky lacked passion, the second movement of the Barber left the oboe soloist playing above an indifferent string accompaniment, and the majority of the Shostakovich Largo felt lifeless. The orchestra's discipline was clearly not to blame. Arming gave virtually the same downbeat gesture for the opening of the finale of the Shostakovich as he did for the opening of the Barber, and the orchestra responded accurately.

Fortunately, the few disappointments were made up for by some magical, fiery playing, beginning with Ehnes' impeccable rendition of the Barber concerto. The Canadian fiddler possesses a gorgeous, penetrating tone across all ranges and, as evidenced by his phenomenal recordings of the Paganini Caprices, endless technical facility. To cap things off, the subtle variegations of his playing were constantly on display, whether in the infinite varieties of speed and width of vibrato, or in his willingness to play with a gruff, exciting au talon attack when needed. Ehnes took over some of the responsibilities of leading the orchestra as well. Arming was a bit slow in the brief introduction to the finale, but Ehnes' insistent rhythmic security at his entry instantly adjusted the pulse and the movement became a non-stop thrill ride to his last rocketing gesture. It was clear that the soloist was aiming for a more organic, varied interpretation while the conductor's purpose seemed one of disciplined exactitude. While there is opportunity for both interpretive stances to bear fruit in this particular work, the results simply will not convince if all involved do not stand on common ground. Those audience members bemoaning the lack of a truly virtuosic solo candenza in the concerto were treated to a full-tilt performance of Paganini's 16th Caprice as an encore from Ehnes.

Arming did impress in several other moments throughout the program. The Montague/Capulet battle episodes in the Tchaikovsky had the right balance of tempestuousness and clarity, and the incremental buildup in the first movement of the Shostakovich swept the listener into its tempest, culminating in the orchestra's potent unison passage. Arming also created chilling atmospheres at the close of the first and third movements of the symphony, his control over pacing and the orchestra's extremely soft, blended sound becoming aptly otherworldly.

In the end, it seemed that Ehnes' charisma in the Barber led the orchestra and its guest conductor from a slightly disappointing Tchaikovsky overture to a more satisfactory Shostakovich symphony. If the evening wasn't an unqualified success from an interpretive standpoint, it was still a solidly conceived and executed program.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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