For Philip Guston

Image: Ben Doyle

Houston has a deep, rich music scene—there’s really something for everyone, and it's often pretty phenomenal. Increasingly, I get a New York kind of feeling here, where there are so many excellent concerts to hear that I’m always missing out on something somewhere. Even so, I managed to catch some top-notch performances this year. Here’s what landed at the top of my list.

1. “For Philip Guston,” Presented by Da Camera, Nov 2

Morton Feldman’s music is misleadingly quiet. We don’t expect soft, floating notes to be demanding, and yet Feldman asks a lot of his audience—and his performers. Flutist Claire Chase, pianist Sarah Rothenberg, and percussionist Steven Schick bravely faced Feldman’s monumental five-hour work For Philip Guston with grace and poise in an unforgettable performance in the Rothko Chapel (see photo above). This work isn’t just rarely heard in Houston; because of the toll it takes, it’s seldom performed anywhere. But this performance showed there’s a reward beyond compare for those with the gumption to wait it out.

 2. “Symphony of a Thousand,” Houston Symphony, May 9 & 10

The Houston Symphony knows how to do the big stuff right. 437 musicians filled the stage to the brim for Mahler’s inspirational Eighth Symphony, and with the charismatic Christoph Eschenbach back on the podium, the concert was revelatory. I can still hear Marisol Montalvo’s soprano voice ringing out from the balcony above, as if she were a celestial being.

3. “Late Style NOW: Adams, Andriessen, Reich,” Presented by Da Camera, May 2

I almost missed this concert, which would have been a real shame. The program was a brilliant trio of Houston premieres: John Adams’s Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), Louis Andriessen’s Life (with film by Marijke van Warmerdam) (2009), and Steve Reich’s very recent Radio Rewrite (2013). The line-up was smart, bursting with rhythmic vivacity and harmonic allure, but the ensemble made this concert unforgettable. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), composed of 20 outstanding musicians, turned every note into a thrill. And the conductor, Karina Canellakis, was the best I've seen—ever.

4. Kumar Bose and Ramesh Mishra, Presented by the Indian Music Society of Houston and the Tagore Society of Houston, Sept 21

When we think of classical music in Houston, we often forget about the Indian classical music scene. The Indian Music Society does a pretty incredible job bringing the best in the business to Houston to perform in a small, intimate auditorium at the University of St. Thomas. Kumar Bose is considered one of the most renowned living tabla (a type of drum) musicians and composers, and at this concert I learned why. Bose’s fingers became a blur as he sunk into the beat, as if he were bending linear time into a circle. I came away knowing I’d never think of rhythm in the same way again.

5. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Houston Symphony, Oct 17

I’ve heard pianists navigate Prokofiev’s dark and difficult piano concerto many times, but no one comes close to Denis Kozhukhin. Making his Houston Symphony debut, Kozhukhin laid into the piano furiously, shaking his ponytail as he set Prokofiev’s impossible arpeggios ablaze. One regret: Jakub Hruša was conducting, and as competent as he was, I wish it had been Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who has proven to be a fantastically exciting music director for the Houston Symphony so far.

 

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