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A Rousing, Ringing Success

Jones Hall
09/26/2013 -  & September 28, 29, 2013
Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Bells, Op. 35
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Jessica Rivera (soprano), Nathaniel Peake (tenor), David Pittsinger (baritone)
Houston Symphony Chorus, Houston Symphony, Matthew Halls (conductor)

M. Halls (© Eric Richmond)

A powerful duo of original takes on symphonic form felt like a delayed, proper start to the Houston Symphony's current season. Rachmaninoff's The Bells, seldom performed live largely due to the enormous personnel required, received a thrilling performance, mostly deriving from the rhythmic precision of the massed forces on stage. Matthew Halls' conducting was vibrant and athletic as needed, and his large, expressive gestures were effective in bringing across the fin de siècle extravagances of the piece. The Houston Symphony Chorus sang its demanding music with excellent blend and beautiful tone, especially impressive in the retreating, lengthy melisma toward the end of the first movement.

The trio of soloists was strong as well. Nathaniel Peake's fruity, slightly brassy tone was perfect for the opening movement, while Jessica Rivera sounded like a Slavic soprano, with wide but controlled vibrato and penetrating sonority. David Pittsinger sang with glorious presence in the final movement, turning it into an almost defiant refutation of death's approach. The English horn passage at the beginning of that movement, beguilingly played, was a highlight among many strong woodwind and brass solos.

After intermission, Halls led a taut, energetic account of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The first movement's introduction laid a foundation of rhythmic momentum that carried through the work. Halls' experience in the early music arena imbued his interpretation with zesty, brisk tempos and effective performance decisions, such as the cessation of vibrato in the strings in the Allegretto. This didn't come across as a lecture performance in period performance, however, but as an intelligent conductor fully exploiting the coloristic possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra. The instrumentalists responded with thrilling virtuosity. There are few things as thrilling as hearing the blazing horn passages in the first and last movements played as perfectly as they were.

This program would be a welcome addition to the Houston Symphony's commercial discography, showing off the orchestra's collective virtuosity in a solid performance of the Beethoven and, in the Rachmaninoff, adding a new frontrunner to the catalogue.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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