Here's something Houstonians don't normally experience in our typical year-round, mercury-raising climate: all four seasons. This weekend, get a dose of each quarter of Mother Nature's beauty during Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, presented by Houston Symphony as part of its Live at Jones Hall series. Under the guidance of guest conductor Nic McGegan, the orchestra will play the baroque masterpiece along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Serenade in G major (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) and William Grant Still’s “Summerland” from Three Visions. The virtual concert starts at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“The Four Seasons is an incredibly original piece, and it's quite precise for what it is,” McGegan said.
As the title implies, The Four Seasons depicts the year’s cycle in Venice, starting with spring and ending with winter. Published in 1725, it features four violin solos. The violin concerto as an art form was only about 25 years old when this piece was written, and Vivaldi’s work is one of the earliest examples of program music, or music that tells a story. In it, listeners can hear characters in the plot such as the sound of birds and streams in spring, a summertime storm, peasants dancing during fall, and a crackling fire in winter.
From one familiar piece to the next, people will recognize Serenade in G major from the Academy Award-winning biopic Amadeus, where Italian composer Antonio Salieri regretted that he should have written the piece as it became more familiar than Salieri’s own creations.
Mozart’s wrote his piece roughly 50 years after Vivaldi’s composition gained popularity, when classical replaced baroque as the style du jour. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, roughly translated as “A Little Night Music,” was meant as a serenade that would have been played in an outdoor setting during a social occasion.
“I would hope the audience at home could pour themselves a glass of wine and pretend they're at a soirée in Vienna. It's music for an event,” he said. “It's got all the right things for a beautiful Mozart piece. It's got a touching romance, a swinging minuet and a brilliant last movement. Mozart is an inexhaustible fount of beautiful melodies.”
Joining the lineup is contemporary musician Still, whose story is quite groundbreaking. Born in 1895, Still is remembered as the Dean of African-American Composers and achieved many firsts. He was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and to have an opera performed on national television.
This weekend’s concert features the second movement from his Three Visions orchestration titled “Summerland.” It depicts the promise of beauty in the afterlife. An interesting aspect about this performance is that it will take place without a conductor leading the orchestra. Although it is not unheard of for conductors to take the back seat during a concert, it is rare. The act serves as the ultimate compliment to the musicians’ strengths and a testament to the trust the conductor places in their talent.
“I'm going to sit there and be excited to hear it just like the audience,” McGegan said. He’s glad the piece will offer an American composer as well. “We have two chestnuts with Vivaldi and Mozart to put this piece in. The concert is not entirely done by dead, European, white males. It's got American music, and it's all the better for that.”
For this concert, it’s only fitting that McGegan take the conductor’s stand. He last appeared with the Houston Symphony for Handel’s Messiah in December. Now in his sixth decade on the podium, he has been hailed by critics as one of the finest baroque conductors of his generation and an expert in 18th-century style.
He has enjoyed the thrill of conducting classical music during his tenure. At home in opera houses, McGegan has shone new light on close to 20 Handel operas as the Artistic Director and conductor at Germany‘s Göttingen Handel Festival for 20 years. He is known in artistic circles for his work with the Mozart canon as Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera in the 1990s. He was also Principal Conductor of Sweden’s Drottningholm Court Theatre from 1993-1996.
He's seen the rough side, too. McGegan’s own career took a hit due to COVID-19. He had planned a last hurrah before ending his 34-year position as Music Director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in San Francisco, which was subsequently cancelled. He is now its Music Director Laureate.
“Sadly, I never got to finish the season. We were supposed to end with a flashy French opera that we would perform both in the United States and at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. That fell victim in April,” he said. “I’m retired from my orchestra, but in no other way have I retired. I hope to make music rather than doing auditions, going to board meetings, and fundraising. I'll just give a concert here and there, and that's great. No one is giving concerts in 2020, but I'm hoping there will be fun things once this pandemic is over.”
He points to the Houston Symphony as a beacon of hope during these turbulent times.
“Kudos to the Houston Symphony for coming up with all their great ideas for concerts that don't have a live audience. I read all the music industry trade papers online and see what other symphonies are doing and how people are coping, and Houston is in the forefront,” the Californian said. “They've cued us to them about putting concerts like this on instead of shutting down. They're also using the internet and all the joys of technology to deliver music into people's homes. We've all got cabin fever, so it's great to be transported to Vienna or Venice for an hour or two.”
Since the springtime cancellation of the Houston Symphony’s remaining 2019-20 season, the group has relied on its ingenuity to offer a way to still connect with its audience and continue offering music.
Beginning in May and running through June, the Symphony began live streaming its newly-introduced Living Room Series. Each Friday night, a musician from the symphony hosted a live-streamed concert from their home, often including musically distinguished family members.
In July, member of the symphony performed in the annual Freedom Over Texas concert on July 4, this year delivered via live stream. Musicians performed from the stage of Jones Hall for the first time since March, and the emotional response from Houston to seeing its musicians onstage again was immediate and powerful.
This gave way to Live from Jones Hall in which Houston Symphony musicians perform live from the stage of Jones Hall each Saturday night. It’s hosted by Executive Director, CEO, and holder of the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair John Mangum, and each program showcases Houston Symphony musicians, socially distanced onstage, in programs that balance the familiar with the less familiar.
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The Houston Symphony is on a directed performance path, starting with live streaming from musicians’ homes, now live streaming from the stage of Jones Hall. Where this is leading is toward reintroducing audiences back to Jones Hall as soon as it’s safe.
Upcoming concerts in the series include Mozart and Walker on August 15; Mozart and Mazzoli on August 22; and Schubert, Stravinsky and Marsalis on August 29. Music enthusiasts who purchase tickets — priced at an affordable $10 each — will receive a private link to enjoy the live performance in the comfort of their own home. A recording will be available using the same link for 24 hours following the concert.
If people aren’t able to partake in the weekend concerts, they can still enjoy the orchestra’s music via its social media pages and at houstonsymphony.org/listenathome. Both feature daily, free content updates including musician videos, blogs, archival audio and video performances, and more.
Houston Symphony's Live from Jones Hall series takes place at 8 p.m. on Saturdays in August. For information or to purchase tickets, visit houstonsymphony.org. $10.