Review: Houston Symphony
This weekend saw the world premiere of a Clarinet Concerto by Richard Lavenda, the fourth of six concerti commissioned by the Houston Symphony for several of its instrumental principals. (Next year John Harbison contributes a new Doublebass Concerto.) Clarinetist David Peck played the solo in the Lavenda and Weber’s Concertino.
Lavenda’s work is in three movements, conservatively atonal, and largely rhapsodic in its construction. The brief first movement lives up to its billing as “Tempestuous.” There are vigorous exchanges of a main angular theme between the soloist and orchestra, many knotty solo runs, and continuous thread of momentum throughout.
The second movement is the Concerto’s center of gravity. It opens with a too-lengthy, rambling episode featuring some interesting instrumental combinations (a passage for harp, low marimba, and muted bass drum was particularly ear-catching) and requires great control from the clarinet. Soloist David Peck was at his strongest in these haunting moments softly suspended in the instrument’s upper register. A contrasting section is ushered in by an explosive crescendo in the bass drum and introduces some wild percussion outbursts before calming down again.
The finale returns to a faster tempo, but is not as assertive in its manner as the opening. The orchestra takes the driver’s seat to the detriment of the solo part, sometimes overshadowing its role.
The Concerto is generally effective in its own right, but the performances lacked spark. After attending two nights, I was left with the feeling that a great deal of energy had been left untapped. David Peck is a solid and able player, but by his own admission is much more comfortable as a member of the full orchestra. His stage manner was very reserved; he stood back from the spotlight, nearly level with the conductor’s music stand. As the orchestra played the final bars of the Weber Concertino, he nonchalantly stuck a hand in his pocket. A little more flash and tension would have been appreciated.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 in C and the Bizet Symphony in C rounded out the program. Mozart is one of Hans Graf’s specialties, and Saturday’s performance was crisp and brilliant. The Symphony’s strings sounded better than I’ve heard them all season, precise, focused, and warm. (Monday night’s performance didn’t fare quite as well. The dynamics had flattened out, and the tempo was slack in the slow movement – a fellow attendee later called it “an excess of moderation.”)
See also: Houston Chronicle Music Critic Charles Ward's review.