Category Archives: Classical

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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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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Discover Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose


Robert Schumann, composer.

This weekend, the Houston Symphony presents a never-before-seen production of Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose, featuring singers, contemporary dancers, chorus and orchestra. I recently got to ask the Houston Symphony’s new Musical Ambassador/Assistant Conductor Carlos Andrés Botero a few questions about Schumann’s choral masterpiece.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose? What does it sound like? What story does it tell?

Carlos Andrés Botero: In 1851, Robert Schumann was hired by the Düsseldorf Choral Society and Orchestra to be their music director and principal conductor. The composer took advantage of this unique opportunity and composed several pieces which are today major contributions to the choral and symphonic repertoire.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Germany saw a surge in popular interest for simple folk stories and countryside mystique. The demand for such themes was so high that some of the most successful writers of the day, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, made their careers solely publishing so-called “fairy (or folk) tales.”

From left to right, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.

From left to right, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.

Robert Schumann, newly appointed in Düsseldorf, composed his own “fairy tale” by transforming the genre of song cycle (of which he himself was a prolific creator) with the powerful forces now at his disposal. His source for the text is a poem by Heinrich Moritz Horn. The story tells us about the journey of a rose who is transformed into a human by fairy magic and over the course of a year experiences a wide spectrum of human emotions: rejection, fraternity, fear, fellowship, faith, romantic love, gratitude and motherhood.

CD: What makes this one of Schumann’s great masterpieces?

CAB: Of the techniques that Schumann displays like no other, his refined ability to convey the depth of spoken language with musical sounds stands out. Every note seems to be serving to literally paint with sound the development of the story. This is not a dramatic tale in the sense we today have developed of “romantic” sound. The Pilgrimage is a wonderful opportunity for our ears to explore the subtleties of color and sound that a musician of his caliber is able to evoke. I think this is precisely the reason why the work fits so well into our Music Director’s search of a New Sound for the orchestra.


The performances this Saturday and Sunday will feature contemporary dancers.

CD: Houston audiences will be treated to a new, semi-staged presentation of The Pilgrimage of the Rose this weekend. How will dance and lighting be incorporated into the performance?

CAB: What we have been working on for this coming weekend is a visual component that will add even more layers of meaning to the aural perception of the piece. This was not originally intended by the composer, of course, but  we are giving the characters created by the author ”bodies” in the form of dancers. So, if you want to follow either sound, movement or both combined, you will be able to enjoy the storytelling in the way that you prefer. From the first downbeat we are going to take our audience back to 1851 and watch the genius of Schumann telling us this compelling tale as if we were in an improvised street theater in Düsseldorf.

Don’t miss Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose, complete with contemporary dancers, singers, chorus and orchestra this Saturday and Sunday at Jones Hall!

If you would like to learn even more about this piece, join Carlos and Andrés at Rice University for a special “Musically Speaking” concert experience tonight! Learn more about our “Musically Speaking” Series here.

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Meet 19-Year-Old Violin Wonder Simone Porter


Simone Porter, violin

This weekend, 19-year-old violin wonder Simone Porter will maker her Houston Symphony debut performing Barber’s Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Times, after referring to her as a “future star,” wrote, “Let’s strike the word ‘future.’ She sounds ready. Now.” Her performances have been described as “bold” (Seattle Times) and “virtuosic” (London Times), and she has already appeared with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and many other world-renowned orchestras. Recently, I got to ask Simone a few questions about herself and her upcoming performances.

Calvin Dotsey: When you first began learning to play music, what made you choose the violin?

Simone Porter: I became obsessed with the violin when I was 3 years old. While I can’t remember what it was that drew me to this specific instrument, I have a theory: I was initially introduced to classical music through opera—I fell in love with a CD of Puccini arias that my parents had in their collection. I think that when I was exposed to the violin, I was attracted to its singing tone and vocal capacities. I think the violin is the instrument that comes the closest to the most natural instrument of all, the human voice-  it functions as such for me, because absolutely nobody would want to hear me attempt to sing.

CD: At 19, you are one of the youngest soloists performing with the world’s major symphony orchestras. When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career as a soloist?

SP: When I first began to play, violin was a hobby—something I just did for the joy it gave me, and it evolved very organically into a passion, and finally a vocation. I was very fortunate to have a number of solo opportunities, and I realized that I loved performing solo more than anything in the world. I consider the experience of being on stage in front of an audience with other musicians all striving towards the same expressive goal a gift.


“I can’t think of any concerto that sings more than the Barber.”

CD: How would you describe Barber’s Violin Concerto to someone who has never heard it before? What do you love about this piece?

SP: I adore the Barber violin concerto. Earlier, I mentioned that opera was my gateway into classical music, and I can’t think of any concerto that sings more than the Barber. Barber wrote so many beautiful works for voice, and his inclination towards the human instrument is apparent in the lyric beauty of this violin concerto. Both the first and second movements are delectably melodious. The first movement is both intimate and expansive- its beginning is quite contemplative, but it crescendos to a sensual and dramatic climax. I think the second movement is the heart of the concerto. It’s my favorite movement, it features some sublimely gorgeous elegiac, evocative melodies. The third movement hits the ground running and never stops- it’s a paroxysm of frenetic energy! The interaction between the orchestra and the soloist in the Barber is also very unique. The parts are so intertwined, their conversations so vibrant, the result is an incredibly lush sound world.

CD: What do you like to do when you’re not practicing or performing?

SP: My main hobby is reading. I’ve always loved books—like music, they have the capacity to transport, to provide solace, entertainment, and inspire mental and emotional expansion. I also feel that my love of literature feeds and informs my music making! I spend the rest of my time gabbing away with my wonderful friends. Talking is a great passion of mine—my garrulousness earned me infamy and the title of “Chatty Cathy” throughout my entire elementary school career.

Don’t miss Simone Porter at Jones Hall September 25, 26, 27, 2015! Get tickets and more info here.

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John Corigliano’s New STOMP

John Corigliano

John Corigliano’s new piece, STOMP for orchestra, will receive its world premiere tonight.

The first classical concert of our 2015-16 season features the world premiere of John Corigliano’s STOMP. One of America’s most important composers, John continues to add to one of the richest, most unusual and most widely celebrated bodies of work any composer has created over the last 40 years. His numerous scores—including three symphonies and eight concerti among more than 100 chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral works—have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists and chamber musicians in the world. Houston Symphony Magazine recently spoke with John about STOMP for orchestra.

Houston Symphony Magazine: How did the idea to translate STOMP from a solo work for violin to an orchestral arrangement originate?

John Corigliano: Well, it was a combination of two things. First, the Houston Symphony asked me to write a piece. Because I am working on completing an opera right now—as I have been for the last two years—I knew I couldn’t write a big piece. I suggested that I might be able to take something and adapt it, or something of that nature. Second, I had heard a wonderful transcription of Bach’s Chaconne (for unaccompanied violin) for full orchestra, so I said this could be done. And I said why don’t I do that? Why not adapt STOMP for solo violin into STOMP for orchestra? It’s a lot of fun, this piece, and it’ll make a wonderful seven-minute opener.

HSM: Were there any particular challenges or opportunities in the translation of STOMP for orchestra?

JC: There were a tremendous number of challenges because STOMP for solo violin is a very unusual piece. Because I wanted to write a bluegrass fiddle piece, I used a technique called scordatura, which means “mistuned” in Italian. Composers have been mistuning strings for special purposes all the way back to the Baroque period. In the case of STOMP for solo violin, the mistuning gave me a really punchy, jazzy feeling. Among other things, I lowered the E of the violin tuning because I wanted to have open strings; a lot of bluegrass violins play open strings. And also, it has a wonderful ring in that register. It makes the violin sound like a viola. However, when I transcribed that for orchestra, I had to abandon those ideas. You do not mistune the orchestra. It’s very difficult for players to learn to finger a note in a different position. Nor is there rehearsal time to do that. And, there’s no need to do that anyway because I have my violas, with their E, if I want to use it in the music.

John CoriglianoThe other element that made this piece unusual and fun to play for solo violin was foot stomping, which fiddle music has in it. Performers tap the melody in off-beats or they stomp the on-beats. I incorporated this into the orchestral version as well. So in STOMP for orchestra, when the sections of the orchestra—the strings, the winds and the brass—are playing, they’re also stomping. It’s supposed to be fun for the musicians, but it’s a new technique. They must coordinate stomps and playing. So it’s a little tricky, but not terribly. And the audience, I think, will have a lot of fun hearing its orchestra playing as a giant country fiddle.

HSM: We’ve talked a little bit about the composition from your perspective and from the musicians’ perspective. Are there any other particular elements you’d like Houston Symphony audience members to be attentive to?

JC: I actually want the audience to sit back and have a good time. It’s a fun piece. It’s a piece that’s high-spirited and has a lyrical melody in the middle, and then it gets back to the high spirits and really goes wild. I want the audience to enjoy that and not to worry about analyzing the piece.

Don’t miss STOMP for orchestra this weekend! Get tickets and more info here.

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