Juraj Valčuha says hello to Houston with Beethoven’s thunderous Ninth
Juraj Valcuha, conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra
Photo: Courtesy of the Houston Symphony Orchestra
One of the most moving images in all of classical music comes from the 1824 Vienna premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. At its conclusion, the composer – by then long deaf – had to turn around to witness the cheering crowd.
Since then, the Ninth has taken on a mythical stature: directed by Richard Wagner during its first Bayreuth Festival and Leonard Bernstein after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and heard at various political victory celebrations, the Olympics, BBC Proms and episodes of PBS’s “Great Performances”. It’s a top-notch crowd pleaser, whose power hasn’t been blunted by familiarity in the slightest.
But hearing a live orchestra play the Ninth in its entirety remains a relatively rare pleasure. It came this weekend as a platform for the Houston Symphony to introduce its new music director, 46-year-old Slovak Juraj Valčuha. It was an ambitious and auspicious choice to open his tenure – and one that came with a twist.
These are the roughly six minutes Valčuha chose to start the concert, An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave, by Atlanta-born composer Carlos Simon. Written in 2015 and dedicated to then-recent victims of police brutality and “others wrongfully murdered by an oppressive power”, the piece was fluid and desperate, its intensity rising and falling in waves before culminating in a single discordant chord that left an undeniable, so uneasy, sense of peace.
If “Elegy” made a sharp retort to the Ninth’s boundless optimism and goodwill, Beethoven took some time in the latter to get there himself. The dramatic opening movement was full of sharp dynamic contrasts, soft violin gasps quickly turning into a full swirl of brass and eardrums. The first few minutes felt like a warm-up exercise, breezy wind melodies escaping between energetic horn and string passages, dueling themes struggling to break through before falling into place virtually all at once.
On the podium, Valčuha led with fiery elegance, not wasting a single joule of energy. Keeping a prisonerless pace, his arms spread wide during the more lyrical interludes; at the stormiest moments his staff trembled with frantic frenzy. He listened intently and intently, tracing melodic contours with his left hand as he fanned the second movement into a great conflagration that sounded both like a roaring party and a runaway train, happily interrupted by a dynamic and charming mid-section. .
Soothing and docile, the third movement unfolds like a richly textured instrumental reverie. Tender melodies swirled back and forth from violins, flutes and clarinets, drifting in a meandering rhythm to a majestic brass snippet that foreshadowed the finale, before the movement wound into harmonies that could tame wild dogs. .
The finale immediately threw down the gauntlet in a flurry of wind and percussion, answered by long, winding statements in the lower strings. Snippets of the previous three movements resurfaced before the famous melody “Ode to Joy” appeared, first on the cellos before spreading throughout the orchestra. (During this section of Saturday’s livestream, you could see Valčuha’s eyes dance with joy.)
The appearance of the four vocal soloists – first bass-baritone Mark S. Doss, then tenor Eric Cutler, and finally soprano Meagan Miller and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke to form a scintillating quartet – ushered in the final line. right, the orchestra and choir alternating between a dizzying array of moods: hushed and ethereal to bold and ultimately triumphant, a maze of interlocking parts all pulling in the same direction.
The ninth, and the last section in particular, has a knack for restoring faith in humanity even when humanity really doesn’t deserve it. He certainly did it here. For Valčuha, the deafening applause and multiple curtain calls marked the sunrise on a tenure in Houston already full of promise and possibility.
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.