Classical Music

A Farewell Toast

Maestro Hans Graf ends his 12 seasons as music director of the Houston Symphony with Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony

By Michael Hardy May 17, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine


Image: Bruce Bennett

 A Graf Farewell
The Houston Symphony
May 17 & 18 at 7:30
Jones Hall
615 Louisiana St

In 2001, when Hans Graf moved to Houston to become music director of the Houston Symphony, he and his wife Rita purchased a duplex loft on the tenth floor of a Rice Village high-rise. Dismayed by the ostentatious formal staircase and the large footprint it left on their home’s lower level, the couple promptly had it torn down, reclaiming space for their Steinway baby grand. They also made space upstairs for part of the 64-year-old maestro’s thousand-bottle wine collection.

But when the Grafs proposed using metal cable for the banisters on the new, freestanding stairs—a popular design feature in the maestro’s native Austria—it was the contractors who were dismayed, having never worked with such material. Still, in the hierarchy of People Accustomed to Having Their Way, directors of major symphony orchestras are near the top, and in the end the Grafs got the banister they wanted. While telling this story, the maestro bounds over to the stairs and plucks one of the wires. “I have them tuned regularly,” he says, grinning.

After leading the Houston Symphony for 12 seasons, the longest tenure in the orchestra’s history, Graf seems relieved to be passing the baton to his successor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the young Colombian conductor who will conduct four weekends of concerts next year before taking over as full-time music director for the 2014-2015 season. Graf himself will conduct two weeks of concerts during next season’s interregnum—the orchestra’s centennial—while guest conductors such as former music director Christoph Eschenbach will fill the rest of the calendar. 

Graf, a well-known oenophile, currently divides his wine collection between his Austro-Houstonian loft—which may or may not be hitting the market soon—his Salzburg apartment, and his symphony office. But the maestro says he never tipples on performance days, which he spends in monastic contemplation, eating a light, meatless lunch and skipping dinner. Digestion, he says, requires too much energy.

“You don’t even want to eat, because you’re so afraid of taking a wrong step, of doing the wrong thing,” Graf says. 

After four decades of leading orchestras around the world, the great maestro still gets performance anxiety?

“No, but I get rather quiet,” Graf replies. “When a tsunami is coming, they always say that the sea recedes a little bit. I get borderline depressive sometimes if I’m alone. It’s a bad time—I really need to go out on stage.” 

Fortunately for his admirers, Graf plans to continue going onstage. In addition to the handful of concerts he’ll lead over the next two years as conductor laureate, Graf will hit the classical music circuit, where he’s a popular guest conductor. But first he’ll do something he hasn’t done since coming to Houston. 

“I hope to go to Italy and Greece with my wife for a month, like normal people do,” Graf says. “We haven’t been on a vacation in 15 years!”

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