Stephen Hough on Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Concerto

Pianist Stephen Hough will perform Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 5 this weekend.

Pianist Stephen Hough will perform Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 this weekend.

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes British pianist, composer, and author Stephen Hough to Jones Hall for performances of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian. Recently, I had the chance to ask Mr. Hough a few questions about this concerto.

Calvin Dotsey:  How would you describe Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 to someone who has never heard it before?

Stephen Hough: I think this piece is all about the ‘exotic,’ especially in the 2nd movement with its Eastern sounds—both Middle and Far East. It was written at the beginning of the 20th century when many new ideas and tastes were being imported into Europe, and it also reflects Saint-Saëns’s adventurous travel tastes.

CD: What makes this piece “Egyptian”?

SH: Mainly the principal themes of the 2nd movement; he also wrote some of it when he was visiting Egypt.

CD: What do you love about this piece?

SH: Its elegance, pianistic sheen, its lovely melodies, its fizz and fun.

CD: Do you have any favorite passages you would like to highlight for the audience?

SH: Well, no one will ever forget the moment in the 2nd movement when the composer introduces an ear-tickling effect. It sounds like I’ve inserted something in between the strings, or even that I’m no longer playing the piano. You’ll not miss it!

Camille Saint-Saëns, photographed by Nadar.

Camille Saint-Saëns, photographed by Nadar.

CD: What makes Saint-Saëns’ way of writing for the piano unique? How does it feel in your hands compared to the piano music of other composers?

SH: He was a great pianist—you can hear this on the few early 78 recordings which survive. Very fast fingers, light, graceful, always elegant. Although it is highly virtuosic, everything lies under the hand—everything works on the instrument.

CD: What do you like to do when you aren’t practicing, performing, or traveling to your next concert?

SH: I read, I write, I think, I eat…and I sleep as much as I can around all of that!

Don’t miss Stephen Hough in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian, this weekend! Click here for tickets and more information.

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A Big Symphony Thank You: Subscriber Appreciation Month

You never know who you might meet at a Houston Symphony concert.

Jones Hall, the home of the Houston Symphony.

At the Houston Symphony, we love our subscribers. These dedicated fans are our core audience, our biggest cheerleaders and our most enthusiastic advocates in the community. By buying ticket packages, subscribers save money and give us the revenue we need to bring great artists to Houston and maintain the highest standards of artistic excellence for our orchestra. They get to see more of the amazing artists and programs we present, discovering new music and relishing old favorites.

But the people who can best tell you why it’s great to be a Houston Symphony subscriber are our subscribers themselves. This November we launched a contest on Facebook asking our subscribers to share their stories with us as part of Subscriber Appreciation Month. We received an overwhelming response, and though we initially planned to pick only one winner, we felt compelled to share an honorable mention with you as well.

Grand Prize: Elaine Matte Mut

Longtime subscriber Elaine Matte Mut suspects that attending Houston Symphony concerts while pregnant can have unintended side effects. As our Grand Prize winner, Elaine will receive dinner for two at the Lancaster Hotel, located just across the street from Jones Hall.

My husband Alan Mut took me on our first date in the mid 1990s to the Houston Symphony’s performance of Carmina Burana. I was excited to see it performed live even though the extent of my knowledge of it was only a “Classics at the Movies” sound track excerpt from the movie Glory. I must have at least appeared ‘teachable’ concerning classical music, since we continued to date and were married in 1998. One of the more entertaining memories of our many visits to the symphony as season ticket holders all these years was during the 2000-2001 season when I was pregnant with our twin daughters. The Symphony was performing the Pines of Rome. During the Appian Way movement the music and drum beat swelled so loudly, I was naively afraid it was hurting my unborn babies’ ears and we started frantically tucking my coat over my large tummy to try to muffle the sound. Whether that piece or the other symphonies we enjoyed during my pregnancy affected the outcome or not, we can’t say for sure. I can only tell you that one of our twin daughters came home from her very first day of 1st grade at Poe Elementary (Fine Arts Magnet) exclaiming, “They have violin there, I want to take violin!” Her twin agreed and they’ve been in their school strings orchestras from 1st through 9th grade and counting!

Honorable Mention: Ken Dinger

For 7-Year Classical Subscriber Ken Dinger, deciding to go to a Houston Symphony concert turned out to be one of the most momentous decisions of his life. As an honorable mention, Ken will receive two free tickets vouchers redeemable for Houston Symphony tickets.

My wife and I first met at a pre-concert party that was sponsored by the Houston Symphony’s singles program. This event happened on a Monday evening, almost fifteen years ago. Yakov Kreizberg conducted the concert program: ‘From Russia with Love,’ and pianist Jeffrey Kahane performed Rachmanioff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. We exchanged our contact information and shared more conversation plus a glass of wine at intermission. My mind was racing by this time—I felt so excited!

After the concert, it took a long time to locate my car. We walked to the underground garage where her compact SUV was parked by the wall just outside of a tunnel door. Having said goodbye, I turned and walked away as if knowing where I was going. I searched on all levels for about twenty minutes before eventually finding my car. It was in the parking space next to her’s.

We’ve been married since 2003. Many thanks to the Houston Symphony for the opportunity to find the love of my life while enjoying great music!


Many thanks to the Lancaster Hotel for donating the grand prize for this contest, and thank you to all of our subscribers for your support of our orchestra. Your commitment to the Houston Symphony helps bring great orchestral music to our whole community.

Do you have a great Symphony Story? Share your Symphony Story in the comments below!

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Liz Callaway Talks Carole King

Liz Callaway, vocalist

Liz Callaway, vocalist

This weekend, the Houston Symphony presents Tapestry: The Carole King Songbook, a tribute to one of America’s most popular and enduring singer/songwriters. Performing many of these songs will be the talented Liz Callaway, one of Broadway’s brightest stars. Liz Callaway has appeared many times on Broadway, including in Sunday in the Park with George, Evita and Cats, and has provided the voice for many animated characters, including Anastasia in the 1997 Fox Animation Studios film.

Houston Symphony: When do you first remember hearing Carole King’s music? What impact did it have on you?

Liz Callaway: When I was a little kid, my family and I would go record shopping every Sunday. One time, my sister and I bought the Tapestry album—and it was life changing. I was intrigued by the album’s cover which features Carole King sitting barefoot with a cat in the foreground.

I immediately fell in love with all the songs on the album. Being asked to sing them for this concert is a dream come true. I can’t single out one particular song; I love them all and I know every lyric of every song.

HS: What attracts you to this music?

LC: Carole King’s music is genuine and heartfelt. It expresses purity and is moving to me. And there’s a lot of fun on the album, too.

HS: How is performing Carole King’s music different from performing other music you sing? What makes it unique?

The cover of Carole King's Tapestry album.

The cover of Carole King’s Tapestry album.

LC: I come from a musical theatre background, but love great pop music. I’m most attracted to the storytelling element. [The orchestra and I] just rehearsed “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” which was made famous by The Monkees in the 60s. It has a carefree, bubble gum feel, but there’s substantive meaning: about social status and life in suburbia. Allison [Blackwell], Bryce [Ryness] and I are singing back up for each other. The three of us have a great comradery. And we absolutely love teaming with Mike [Krajewski] and this fabulous orchestra.

HS: Do you have any favorite songs you would like to highlight for the audience?

LC: I think audiences will really enjoy our interpretation of “A Very Pleasant Sunday.” We’re also doing this amazing trio of three songs which was arranged by my friend: “Home Again,” “So Far Away,” “Been to Canaan.” Allison will be singing “Natural Woman.” She’s incredible.

Also, this program will reveal Carole King’s prolific career as a songwriter. Though she recorded many songs that she wrote, audiences will get the opportunity to hear music that was intended for or recorded by other artists.

Liz Callaway, vocalist

Liz Callaway, vocalist

HS: In your view, how does Carole King fit into the history of American popular music? Why do we still remember and sing her songs today?

Tapestry is a perfect album. Her music is timeless. Her songs are so well crafted and they touch people. I know that Rolling Stone ranked it in their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” I would argue that it should be in the top three.

LC: What do you like to do when you aren’t serenading people with your wonderful voice?

HS: I love to spend time at home cooking. I’m also an avid tennis player and huge sports fan.

Don’t miss Liz Callaway in Tapestry: The Carole King Songbook at the Houston Symphony this weekend!

• Friday, November 20 at 8:00 pm
• Saturday, November 21 at 8:00 pm
• Sunday, November 22 at 7:30 pm

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Program Notes: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings

Read the program notes for this weekend’s concerts below!

403px-Richard_and_Cosima_WagnerSIEGFRIED IDYLL

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

In a Tweet: Life and art interweave in Richard Wagner’s mellifluous “musical birthday poem” for his wife.

The Back Story: Richard Wagner carried on a seven-year affair with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of a disciple of his, until her divorce enabled them to marry in 1870. As a combined Christmas and birthday present that year, Wagner secretly composed a serenade for her, drawing on his recently composed Siegfried, the third opera of his saga The Ring of the Nibelung. On Christmas morning, he sneaked a chamber ensemble into their home, set up the musicians in the stairway and conducted the world premiere, the sounds of which wafted into Cosima’s bedroom. “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound which swelled fuller and fuller,” she wrote in her diary. “No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming, music was sounding, and what music! As it died away, Richard came into my room…and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so was the whole house.”

The Instruments: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 horn, 1 trumpet and strings

Siegfried and Brünnhilde as depicted by illustrator Arthur Rackham.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde as depicted by illustrator Arthur Rackham.

What to Listen For: For a “symphonic birthday poem” between a man and a woman whom were at last legally joined, the symbolism is unmistakable. The Idyll ties in with the opera Siegfried’s radiant closing scene, in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the hero and heroine destined for one another, finally meet and unite. The Idyll’s opening, with its melody and mellifluousness that dominate the piece, grows from the music in which Brünnhilde vows that she will forever devote herself to Siegfried’s well-being. The oboe tiptoes into the Idyll singing a German lullaby, no doubt alluding to Wagner and Cosima’s son Siegfried, who was 18-months old when Wagner unveiled the musical Christmas gift. The Idyll’s climax comes from Brünnhilde’s ringing salute to “Siegfried, radiant youth!” In this context, the reference is to the real-life Siegfried, who grew up to conduct his father’s music and compose his own. Siegfried, however, was far off when Wagner composed the Idyll, which ends as gently as a lullaby. One of Wagner’s most ardent admirers, Anton Bruckner, will get the spotlight in the Houston Symphony’s April performances of Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 7.

The printed music for this work was donated by W. J. and Dorothy McCaine.


Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

In a Tweet: Dvořák turned a recycled melody into a lyrical gem for violin and orchestra.

The Back Story: The young Antonin Dvořák learned from his mistakes. When a Czech theater’s singers and orchestra gave up trying to learn his folk opera, The King and the Collier—in which he had emulated the intricate style of Richard Wagner—the 32-year-old realized he was on the wrong track. Dvořák not only rewrote the entire opera in a simpler vein, but he also examined his other works, destroying several. So much for his Wagnerian urges. Amid the works he rejected, though, a string quartet contained a lilting, pensive melody that deserved a second chance. Dvořák expanded it into his Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra, which his full-length concertos have overshadowed unjustly.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

What to Listen For: Don’t call the Romance a vignette. This lyrical, expressive work clocks in at about 12 minutes, making it a little longer than the Adagio centerpiece of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra sets up a gently rocking pace and hints at the melody, then the violin steps in, spinning out the theme with a freedom and eloquence that far outshine that of the tune’s original incarnation. After a new, vaulting theme adds a tinge of yearning, the violin grows rhapsodic and urgent, and a brief, ringing declaration from the orchestra provides the work’s climax. Then, the violin brings back the opening melody, and Dvořák gives it new shadings on the way to the peaceful close. The Houston Symphony has another underappreciated violin work in store for January, when European performer Patricia Kopatchinskaja solos in Robert Schumann’s introspective concerto.


Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908)

In a Tweet: A charismatic violinist transformed Hungarian melodies into a showpiece relished by generations of virtuosos.

The Back Story: During a time when most violin virtuosos were flamboyant yet crude, performer-composer Pablo Sarasate eclipsed them by virtue of his silkiness and polish. Carl Flesch, a leading 20th-century violinist and teacher, witnessed Sarasate’s charisma when Flesch was a student: “With awe, as if he were a supernatural phenomenon from a wonderland ever inaccessible to us, we boys looked up to the small, black-eyed Spaniard. …It was a unique experience to see this little man stride on to the platform with genuine Spanish grandeza, superficially calm, even phlegmatic…[then] play with unheard-of sovereignty and, in a rapid climax, put his audience into astonishment, admiration and highest rapture.” Gypsy Airs, which probably grew from the zesty folk bands he heard during an 1877 trip to Hungary, was one of many showpieces Sarasate composed to help whip up the frenzy.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings

Pablo de Sarasate, as caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1889.

Pablo de Sarasate, as caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1889.

What to Listen For: Gypsy Airs begins with a czardas, which is a Hungarian dance that also inspired Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss and others. The first section, slow and free, allows the soloist to show off his tone and swagger. The pace quickens in the second part, which sets off salvos of violin pyrotechnics. The heart-on-its-sleeve tune that follows is actually not the work of gypsies. Rather, it comes from “There’s Only One Lovely Maid in the World,” a popular song whose composer, Elemer Szentirmay, wrote Sarasate after the work’s publication asking for credit. (Sarasate obliged in the next edition.) After reveling in the tune, the soloist takes off at a dash. The rapid-fire bowing, stratospheric flights and other fireworks make for a dazzling finish. In April, the Houston Symphony and violinist Caroline Goulding will set off more violin fireworks when they perform Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1.

The printed music for this work was donated by Ann & Kevin Casey.


Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

In a Tweet: As a young composer beginning to make his name, Dvořák poured his gift for melody into his Serenade for Strings.

The Musikverein in Vienna opened in 1870 and is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Musikverein in Vienna opened in 1870 and is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Back Story: Dvořák’s rewrite of his opera, The King and The Collier, premiered in November 1874, winning the young composer much-needed praise. More good news came in early 1875, when a Viennese troika that included Johannes Brahms awarded him an Austrian prize for talented, needy artists. Not only did the money come in handy, since Dvořák had a wife and young son to support, but his career gained its first toehold outside his Czech homeland. In May of that year, Dvořák created his melodious Serenade for String—in less than two weeks. When a member of the Vienna Philharmonic tried that summer to persuade the high-profile group to perform the new work, his colleagues shot the idea down, thinking the composer was too obscure. But the 1876 premiere in Prague magnified Dvořák’s reputation at home, and performances in other Czech cities gave his reputation an additional boost.

The Instruments: strings

What to Listen For: The mellow opening sets the tone for the entire piece, which unfolds in five concise movements. The pace picks up gradually as the waltzing second movement leads to the dashing third. Then, Dvořák turns inward. Even though the Larghetto’s main melody aims downward, it never sounds downcast. Instead, its depth enhances the music’s richness and soul. The finale unleashes the excitement that listeners know so well from Dvořák’s most jubilant Slavonic Dances. But here, Dvořák offers parting glances of the Larghetto’s lyricism and the opening’s serenity before the last burst of rowdiness. Dvořák will cap off the Houston Symphony’s classical season with the May premiere of The Cosmos: An HD Odyssey, which will meld the “New World” Symphony with NASA video of the heavens.

©2015 Steven Brown

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Announcing Our New Crespo Elementary School Residency

The Houston Symphony is proud to announce its new Residency at Crespo Elementary School.

The Houston Symphony is proud to announce its new Residency at Crespo Elementary School.

At the Houston Symphony, we believe that everyone in our community should have access to great orchestral music regardless of ability to pay. With over 20 free concerts per year, a Student Concert Series that reached over 55,000 students during the 2014-15 Season and numerous free musician visits to schools, hospitals and community centers, we are already working hard to make that vision a reality, but we still want to do more.

This is why the Houston Symphony, Houston Independent School District and Presenting Sponsor BBVA Compass Foundation have launched an unprecedented school residency that will reach more than 400 economically-disadvantaged students at Crespo Elementary. This 3-year pilot program is designed to make classical music accessible to students, parents, school staff and faculty and to deepen the level of music understanding within this school community.

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians David Connor (bass) and Anthony Parce (viola) teach students at Crespo Elementary.

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians David Connor (bass) and Anthony Parce (viola) teach students at Crespo Elementary.

Crespo Elementary is a fine arts magnet school where every student has the opportunity to specialize in art, band, dance, drama or technology. Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians Anthony Parce and David Connor visit each fine arts classroom on a bi-weekly basis so that all 3rd-5th grade students, regardless of their fine arts specialty, receive the Houston Symphony residency curriculum. All lessons will take place in school and during school hours and include music appreciation, recorder instruction and composition lessons.

School residency programs are not unique in the orchestra world. So what makes the Houston Symphony School residency at Crespo so special?

  • This residency reaches the whole school community. The program will bring students and their families outside of the school and into full concert experiences as part of the Houston Symphony’s family and student concert series at Jones Hall. Additionally, the Houston Symphony will also bring ensembles to Crespo for Family Chamber Concert Nights. The residency at Crespo Elementary aims to weave orchestral music into the fabric of the school community, including the families of the students.
  • Students at Crespo pose with Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician David Connor.

    Students at Crespo pose with Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician David Connor.

    This residency connects the students to the stage. While many orchestras across the country have teaching artists that bring music into the schools, the concept of a community-embedded musician is unique to the industry. One of the biggest differences between the Houston Symphony community-embedded musicians and other top-tier orchestra teaching artists is that the Crespo students will actually be able to see their community-embedded musician on stage at the concerts!

  • This residency is about the process. Mr. Connor and Mr. Parce prioritize inquiry-based instruction that inspires creativity through music. Students are learning that an important part of listening to music is asking questions and creating their own meaning. The hope is that every student will learn to find his or her voice through actively perceiving and interpreting music. As part of this inquiry-based instruction, the students will learn basic skills of music composition and create a group “musical adventure” project, which will be premiered at Crespo Elementary’s Fine Arts Night in May.

The Houston Symphony is thrilled to be participating in this unique residency at Crespo Elementary along with presenting sponsor BBVA Compass Foundation. The Houston Symphony also thanks Spec’s Charitable Foundation/Spec’s Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods, the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation, Medistar, Mr. Jay Steinfeld & Mrs. Barbara Winthrop, and Nancy & Robert Peiser for their generous support of the Community-Embedded Musicians.

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