My very first memory of Houston is one of disappointment: I stepped off the plane at Bush Intercontinental, bags in hand, into the middle of the bustle of comers and goers—and no one was wearing a 10-gallon hat. Sure, the cow sculptures in the airport had on spacesuits, but there wasn’t a Stetson in sight.
Around rodeo time, however, it seems to become harder to fight the stereotype of Houston as Cowtown. Once you’ve gotten through baggage claim and settled in as a full-time Houstonian, anyone can tell you where to head to find the boots and belt buckles, especially from late February to mid-March. Each year, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ushers in spring by taking over NRG Stadium and providing both tourists and locals alike an opportunity to immerse themselves in the Western traditions on which rodeo was built.
On a recent night, a 1,284-lb. steer named Amos Moses came out on top as a Grand Champion, nearly sending his teenage guardian to tears (and not just for the $75,000 she had just been guaranteed, it seemed). Shortly before, a bull rider survived a stomp to the head after falling short of the eight-second mark and a chance at a qualifying score. Then there was Mutton Bustin' (if you don’t know, you ain’t a Houstonian…yet.)
That’s the Houston I was expecting when I stepped off the plane—the one people from Back East assume we all experience on a daily basis. It’s a vision to appreciate, but one that doesn’t tell Houston’s whole story. So this past weekend, a day after taking in the Ferris Wheel and fried Oreos outside NRG Stadium, I headed right smack to the middle of downtown to take in a spectacle just a few years older than the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: the Houston Symphony, which gave its first concert in 1913 courtesy of philanthropist and überHoustonian Ima Hogg.
The organization has seen its share of homes, as has the rodeo, but is now squarely ensconced in Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, a more staid setting than the previous night’s arena. The crowd that surrounded me was different, but familiar: no hats, but plenty of jeans and boots, and all equally enthusiastic about the program. Parents brought kids to teach them something about the past. A short video featuring the symphony’s twisting and hopping conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, set up each work, giving insight into preparations for the performance so that the crowd felt at home, rather than intimidated.
When the action started, the symphony moved through a Bernstein piece, and then the musicians struck into Beethoven’s 9th Symphony—the eight-second, 94-point bull ride of the classical music catalog. The crowd’s ovation at the end of "Ode to Joy" lasted much longer than the acknowledgment given any bareback rider, steer wrestler or Little Big Town the night before, and went on for several minutes.
After two curtain calls and an impending third, it was time for me to leave, but I didn’t rush out. As the whole city was consumed by RODEOHOUSTON, I had found a reason not to go, and a new side of Houston to explore. For this Yankee, that wasn’t disappointing at all.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ended this year's run on March 20. The Houston Symphony Orchestra’s classical season runs through May 2016. Tickets are available at houstonsymphony.org.