Daily Bow: Shaking It (Up) with the Houston Symphony

Daily Bow LogoWith presidential elections just around the corner, some of the nation’s finest orchestras are also looking for a leader. The job of music director is a prestigious, high-pressure one, and as any denizen of a symphony orchestra will tell you, it’s not one that is easy to fill. The selection process is a little like a cross between a political election and dating, and it’s hard to imagine a process that is less scientific or more delicate. Like a political race, the selection of a music director for an orchestra involves a lot of business- and administratively-oriented aspects–what’s the programming like? Does the symphony board like the candidate? Does the candidate have the necessary leadership skills, both on and off the stage, to be the face of the organization, both artistically and administratively?

And then there’s the dating-like aspect of the selection process. Is the candidate…right for the orchestra? Is it a good match? Do both parties bring out the best in the other? And, at the end of the day, does the partnership have the potential to keep creating magic for years to come?

It’s a tricky gamut to run, even in a field where a job is not easy to come by. When a symphony is on the hunt for a music director, musicians tend to treat it a little like a spectator sport. Members of musical communities watched with great interest as the Seattle Symphony searched for a replacement for longtime Music Director Gerard Schwartz (whom they found in Ludovic Morlot), and the excitement was palpable among the Chicago Symphony members when they finally settled on Ricardo Muti as the successor to Daniel Barenboim. The Houston Symphony is the latest among these major orchestras to join the hunt, as their current director Hans Graf will be retiring at the end of the 2012 – 2013 season.

2011, clearly, is not too early to start looking, and some speculation has been made as to who the replacement might be. In a feature entitled “Conductor Search,” Culture Map Houston has detailed the latest “could-be” conductor, and the review itself is entertaining and worth the read simply for that. The review in question, written by Joel Luks and provocatively titled “Brahms, Sex, and Cigarettes: Houston Symphony Loses Its Inhibitions with Maestro Christoph Koenig,” gives great insight into the search for a music director. Luks offers a detailed look into what an audience and orchestra might be looking for in its next music director. The review itself is an enthusiastic one–Luks speaks highly of Koenig’s non-traditional but very compelling interpretation of Brahms’s Second Symphony:

It was a much different Brahms that I was accustomed to. At first, I responded viscerally, wanting to yell out “What are you doing? Slow down! Relax! Have you ever heard of Brahms?” to the Dresden-born conductor.  Yet his tempi and gusto were so convincing, so artistically persuasive, that I am now a convert to Koenig’s interpretation in marriage with our local orchestra: It was faster in every movement, gritty, sultry, nasty, rug-burn hot. If Koenig’s Brahms was sex, you’d need a cigarette and a nap afterwards.

Not your average review, but then, according to Luks, this was not your average performance. Indeed, the Houston Symphony seems to be on a mission, like many other symphonic organizations, to shake things up and offer a newer, bolder face to the classical community. According to Executive Director Mark Hanson, the symphony is seeking to present more fresh faces to the audience, and, as such, the Houston Symphony is undergoing something of a renewal in the variety and number of new soloists and conductors being offered to the audience. Koenig certainly fits the mold that Houston is looking to pour itself into: he’s young, he’s accomplished (Koenig currently serves as the principal conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música in Portugal and music director of the Solistes Européens Luxembourg), and he’s bold in his programming and his presentation:

Koenig is a treat to watch; his gestures are contagious. There is exact precision in his conduction without sacrificing musical expression. When he wiggled his tush in the last movement of Brahms in response to to a highly syncopated passage, though I initially lost it, it was a sign of inhibition-free conducting that allowed the Houston Symphony to shine.

Shakin’ it is not something that comes up in most conducting courses (or classical reviews). The point about which Luks’s review was most passionate, though, is that the connection between the symphony, the audience, and the speculative candidate Koenig was that which is undefinable and rare: he describes it as magic, which, though it is a cliche for the ages, is sometimes the only appropriate word. Although the conductor search is by no means over, and although much of the buzz about Koenig is speculative in nature, Luks makes the important point that any conductor who can breathe new life into an orchestra is worth a second look. Like love and life, music is best with more joy and fewer inhibitions.

2 Responses to Daily Bow: Shaking It (Up) with the Houston Symphony

  1. Neville January 23, 2024 at 8:50 am #

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  2. black demon April 14, 2024 at 8:10 am #


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