First time for everything

This Houston Group Won Its First Grammy Ever

Travis Scott didn't deliver, but the Houston Symphony came in clutch at Sunday's awards.

By Morgan Kinney January 29, 2018

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Hans Graf conducts the Houston Symphony's Grammy-winning performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.

When the 2018 Grammy Award nominees were announced back in November, it seemed the only local win would go to Travis Scott, the Houston-born rapper featured on "Love Galore"—a hit track by much hyped R&B singer SZA, who was nominated and ultimately shut out in five categories at Sunday's award ceremony. 

Instead, the Houston Symphony was the one who delivered for the Bayou City, winning Best Opera Recording for its live performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. It's the first Grammy award and nomination in the orchestra's 104-year history. 

This 2013 recording of the atonal opera by German composer Alban Berg (adapted from an uncompleted play by Georg Büchner) gathered the combined talents of the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera Children's Chorus, Shepherd School of Music Chorus of Students and Alumni, and principal soloists Anne Schwanewilms and Roman Trekel. It's an esoteric composition that happened to be a favorite of former Music Director Hans Graf, who programmed the opera as part of his bucket list before departing the Houston Symphony in May 2013.

“Büchner’s timeless, daring message of empathy and understanding along with Berg’s incredible music, emotional and precise, yielded perhaps the greatest opera of the 20th century,” Graf said in a press release. “The Houston Symphony’s performances show how it can be done in concert, staged lightly with great care and love—and with great impact.” 

But as the Houston Chronicle reports, the recording was actually something of an accident. Recording engineer and composer Brad Sayles—who records every Houston Symphony performance for "archival purposes"—detected a special energy during rehearsals back in 2013, perhaps attributable to Graf's impending departure. After the performance, Sayles approached Graf to consider releasing the recording as an album. Alban Berg: Wozzeck was eventually released in January 2017 on the Naxos label, quickly racking up praise and superlatives from the classical music press.

The Grammy win was a quiet victory (it didn't even make the television broadcast), but, after the emotional toll of watching Beyoncé lose album of the year not once (in 2015) but twice (in 2017), any Houston music fan will certainly bask in the afterglow of the recognition.

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