If you're the kind of person who attends the symphony to achieve a transcendant distance from your own subjectivity, a kind of elevation born of virtuosic precision, then lighter symphonic programs—say, the Houston Symphony's upcoming Music of the Rolling Stones concert—probably aren't for you. But the lesson of the Houston Symphony's delightful 100th Birthday Concert is that when the symphony decides to go populist, it should not hold back.
Over 17,000 Houstonians surrounded Hermann Park's Miller Outdoor Theatre on Friday, 100 years to the day after the Symphony gave its first concert on June 21, 1913. People with the motivation to wake up at 6 a.m. and stand at the Symphony box office for limited free tickets found themselves with seats, programs, Exxon Mobil towels, and "Ima Fan" fans stamped with Ima Hogg's image; the less-motivated or otherwise-employed spread out over the hill facing the theater.
The concert included appearances by the University of Houston's marching band, American Idol contestant Lakisha Jones, and the Memorial High chorus. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst arrived to announce that the Texas Legislature had named June 21 "Symphony Day" from now until the end of time. From Holst we had The Planets; from Beethoven, the 9th Symphony, from Tchaikovsky, The Waltz of the Flowers, from Dolly Parton (through Lakisha Jones), "I Will Always Love You." Then it was time for something from La Boda de Luis Alonso.
"Classical music and breakdancing?" asked Tom Koch of ABC News 13, our emcee for the evening. "Does it work? You be the judge!"
Which is when the dancers from Westside High School showed up. Lest any of us drift off, somehow bored, the symphony planted members of its own chorus in the audience, and they rose singing, to dramatic effect, during Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
"Are we having fun?" asked conductor Robert Franz.
"Yes!" screamed a nine-year-old next to me. The concert ended the only way it could have, which is to say, with a fireworks display.
The free summer concert series continues this weekend with what looks to be a rather more restrained program—perfect for those who like their classical music with less breakdancing. As for us, we're glad we saw whatever exactly it was that was happening last week. It was Symphony Day, after all.