Houston — The Houston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of guest maestro Fabien Gabel, presented a program on Oct. 28 that worked better than expected. Tchaikovsky’s lush violin concerto and his rarely played tone poem, The Tempest, shared the program with music from two movie scores. It worked because the two film composers have street cred with the classical music crowd. The first was a suite drawn from the creepy music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock’s thriller, Vertigo. The program ended with a suite drawn from the virile music that Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote for the exciting Errol Flynn vehicle, The Sea Hawk.
On the podium, Gabel is a contradiction. He is clear, only occasionally mirroring his hands, expressive and precise. However, he does some strange things. Important or climatic down beats lose clarity as he launches them, with a slight hesitation for emphasis, from the middle of his body like arrows out of a bow. He bounces on his toes and frequently bends backwards from the waist. All this looks very dramatic and conductor-like, but as the concert progresses you begin to realize that he conducts everything in this same style. In general, it worked well for this concert and perhaps the similarly romantic tone of everything on the program elicits the same technique. However, it soon began to look like a tic and I have no reason to quibble with his overall results.
Herrmann was first up. His eerie music, even without the images, didn’t relieve the film’s sense that doom is just around the corner. We were on the edge of our seats throughout. Herrmann’s music is replete with hints of the two Richards—Wagner and Strauss—as it is found in the Korngold score.
The Vertigo Suite is divided into three separate movements and Gabel put a long pause between them as if to let everyone catch their breath. The first movement, entitled “Prelude,” featured a quiet but insistent ostinato, a forerunner of Minimalism, which Herrmann punctuates with huge crashing and frequently dissonant short chords played tutta forza by the whole orchestra. The same hammer stroke chords reappeared in the second movement, appropriately named “Nightmare.” It lived up to its name with scampering strings and a canted habanera. The last movement, “Scene d’amour,” is an orgy of beautifully resolving non-harmonic tones.
Violinist Karen Gomyo followed and made quite an impression with her unique take on Tchaikovsky’s much beloved Violin Concerto. She only moved slightly as she played, especially in comparison to some other artists who move like the windsock at a used car dealer as they play. The overall takeaway was a feeling of elegance and almost unbearable beauty combined with technical mastery of the instrument. She brought a most welcome romantic take on the other two movements, even including a lot of slides between notes—a common practice in years gone by but eschewed in these more pristine days of sensitized accuracy.
Musically, however, she made one questionable decision with her blindingly fast tempo in the last movement. It lost all sense of folk dance as she turned the rondo into a mad scramble, showing us her obviously fleet fingers. This was underscored by Gabel and the HSO struggling to keep up.
However, she brought a most welcome romantic take on the other two movements, even including a lot of slides between notes—a common practice in years gone by but eschewed in these days of fantasized accuracy. Her mastery was ably demonstrated with her playing of the increasingly high harmonics, always pausing before the last, and highest, one. They rang like the pristine ding of antique cymbals or a small triangle.
She used dynamics from nearly inaudible to fierce fortes, her vibrato from romantically slow to fast and tight as well as her bow arm like a painter uses color. She showed even more elegance as she stood quietly, yet obviously completely involved, during the long transition between movements two and three. She was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation and the audience demanded more curtain calls than she was willing to give.
Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest was written to be a companion on his tone poem on Romeo and Juliet: a pair of Shakespearian jewels. It returned us to Herrmann’s feeling of impending doom as it proceeds over a long and low pedal point. The winds start the storm with some accurately portrayed lightning as the composer winds up for a thunderstorm. The thunder is created with a big wallop from the timpani, but mostly from the bass drum.
Korngold’s score for The Sea Hawk was revolutionary and paved the way for accomplished orchestral composers, such as John Williams, to follow in his footsteps. This score contains some absolutely marvelous music in a one-movement compilation. It has a lot in common with Tchaikovsky’s aforementioned Tempest tone poem and Strauss works like Ein Heldenleben and Death and Transfiguration. His heroic fanfares and tender love music definitely comes from the influence of Strauss combined with 20th century neo-romanticism. It begs for more appearances in symphony concerts and, judging from the audience’s reaction, works best as a closer.