Last Night: Houston Symphony Performs Brahms's Second at Jones Hall

In December 1877, leading up to the premiere of Johannes Brahms's newest composition (which would be performed by the Vienna Philharmonic), the German told friends as well as the publisher of his work to watch out for the most emo piece of music ever written. It was a sardonic trick.

"It's so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it," said Brahms in an article published on November 22, 1877. "I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning."

As the Vienna Philharmonic demonstrated that December evening in 1877 -- and what was heard in Jones Hall last night during the Houston Symphony's rendition of the number -- the only thing to mourn was that Brahms, who left the planet in 1897, isn't around to sculpt another work that fuses tradition with innovation.

Conducted by the gifted Christoph König, who oft-times moved like a malfunctioning robot doing the robot, the Houston Symphony impressed in its interpretation of Brahms's four-movement Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73.

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König, making his debut with the Houston Symphony, is the principal conductor of Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música and Luxembourg's Solistes Européens. Operating from an energetic yet grounded perspective, König's touches, especially during the number's more serious sections, allowed the orchestra to steep the music with solid pacing, additional oomph and keen clusters that contemporaries such as Samuel Barber repurposed into compositions like Adagio for Strings.

As the Houston Symphony displayed last night, Brahms's Symphony No. 2 has aged relatively well, though there were a few puppies-and-kittens evoking spots in the "Adagio non troppo" movement. The contrast between the sublime and the cheese, however, is classic Brahms, where his music can sound antiquated and hip at the same time.

Earlier in Thursday evening's program, the Houston Symphony took Zhou Tian's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Franz Schubert's Mass No. 3 in B-Flat Major, D.324, to task.

Good Prayers, written by 30-year-old Chinese-American composer Zhou Tian (who was in attendance and introduced the piece onstage), began with a cinematic and verbose foreword before the ten-minute vignette traveled through a narrative about family, religion and spirituality. The epic proportions of the Chinese proverb-inspired work didn't seem to impress one of the orchestra's clarinet players, who, during a brief pause, didn't really try to be sly about suppressing a huge yawn.

Following Good Prayers was the extended mass by Schubert that necessitated the addition of the Houston Symphony Chorus and soloist anchors Elizabeth Keusch (soprano), Quinn Patrick (mezzo-soprano), Steven Tharp (tenor) and Stephen Bryant (bass-baritone), each of whom was also making his/her inaugural appearance with the Houston Symphony. The approximately 45-minute piece was pretty standard for a liturgical-centric composition, full of acoustic analog vigor.

The Houston Symphony performs Brahms's Second Symphony at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 12 and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street. For ticket information, check out the Houston Symphony website.


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