Thrilling Start to Houston's Centennial Season
Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20 – Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1
Richard Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder: "Träume"
Johann Strauss, Jr.: Walzer aus Wien: "Frag' mich oft woran's den wohl liegt"
Giuseppe Verdi: Nabuccodonosor: Overture
Licinio Refice: Ombre di Nube
Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi: "O mio babbino caro"
Léo Delibes: Les Filles de Cadix
Leonard Bernstein: Divertimento for Orchestra – West Side Story: "Somewhere" – "I Feel Pretty"
Richard Rodgers: South Pacific: "A Wonderful Guy" – The Sound of Music: "The Sound of Music"
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Houston Symphony, Juanjo Mena (conductor)
R. Fleming (© Jonathan Tichler)
The trio of Renée Fleming, the Houston Symphony and Juanjo Mena thrilled a packed Jones Hall audience for the opening night of the orchestra's hundredth season. With a delicious program that provided something for everyone, everyone involved performed at the highest level.
The program opened with Mena eagerly indulging in Don Juan's every Romantic hyperbole. The orchestra zealously responded: trumpets shone, horns soared, strings skittered and sang. Even a slight hiccup at the recapitulation couldn't derail a performance this fine, the highlight of which was Jonathan Fischer's superlative rendition of the famous oboe solo at the work's heart. The orchestra's two other "solo" works were also stunningly played. The low brass chorales and galloping string articulations in Verdi's overture were matched by extraordinary solo and ensemble work in Bernstein's Divertimento.
But the night belonged to Renée Fleming, who easily matched the excellence of the orchestra's playing. In her first trio of Austro-German songs, her diction was excellent, and the wide-ranging moods were wonderfully conveyed. Zueignung throbbed urgently, answering the hushed "Harmoniemusik" that frames Wagner's "Träume." The J. Strauss piece set the pattern for a light-hearted work capping each set, and in it and the corresponding Delibes and Bernstein songs, Fleming's easy technique and charming charisma delighted the audience. Bernstein's "Somewhere" brought out the best aspects of her voice: pitch-perfect, lacking in exaggeration and consistent, glorious streams of beautiful tone in all registers and at all dynamic levels.
The audience was rewarded for its ovations with four encores. "Summertime" was slightly unidiomatic but enjoyable, while "Danny Boy" brought forth another wonderful vocal performance let down by a gaudy arrangement that demanded such extravagances as a wind machine for a one-measure sound effect. The encores also filled one gaping hole in the orchestra's centennial program by including a work by a Houston composer, J. Todd Frazier. Unfortunately, his setting of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence couldn't hold its own against the melodic, harmonic and coloristic ingenuity of the preceding songs and arias.
This was a smart program and laid a great foundation for an exciting if conservative centennial season. Fleming is the first among an impressive list of upcoming superstar guests, and the orchestra sounds reinvigorated, creating a stir of excitement for concerts to come.
Marcus Karl Maroney