The Energy Corridor of Houston Orchestra, aka ECHO, will close out its ninth season with Academic Festival, featuring music from some of the most brilliant classical, romantic and baroque composers. What’s more, up-and-coming orchestral talent will join for part of the performance. The show takes places at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory.
Of particular note, 12 string players from Strake Jesuit College Preparatory and Saint Agnes Academy will join ECHO for a portion of the program as well as the winners of ECHO’s Young Artists Concerto Competition, who will both play their contest piece during the program.
“It will be interesting for the audience and interesting for the orchestra as well. The orchestra is absolutely in love with this music and program. They are having a really great time [in rehearsal], and so are the soloists,” said Michael Fahey, conductor for ECHO.
Choosing the venue and incorporating the two high schools was an easy choice for ECHO. The two neighboring schools share a performing arts hall, and the orchestra director plays in ECHO.
“It is a win-win for everyone. The students get to play with a professional orchestra, the orchestra gets to play in this stunningly beautiful hall,” Fahey said.
Describing the programming that will take place in the gorgeous venue, Fahey shared the unique, somewhat whimsical backgrounds of the three ensemble pieces.
The first, Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, is nicknamed “Unfinished.” In Schubert’s 31 trips around the sun, he began composing 13 symphonies but completed only nine of them. He completed the first two movements in Symphony No. 8, but the remaining two were only partially worked on. It wasn’t until Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript several decades later, and he chose to “complete” the symphony with other music by Schubert.
Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” also graces the set list. The overture was written in gratitude to the University of Breslau for awarding him an honorary doctorate degree, but it had one major twist.
“The piece starts out very serious in a minor key, and along the way it becomes more jovial and incorporates student songs halfway through and into the end,” Fahey said. “Students songs are songs that those students at the time would have been familiar with. And it turns out…they were drinking songs.”
One can only imagine the delight on the academics’ faces. “They at first were appalled, and after a while they started snickering and thought it was great irony,” Fahey added.
The evening will also include “Slavic March,” composed by Peter Illych Tchaikovsky on commission for a benefit concert for the Red Cross Society’s aid to Serbian soldiers involved in the Serbian-Ottoman War.
While Tchaikovsky is known by most for “The Nutcracker Suite,” he oddly came to hate that piece, “…But he really was very proud of ‘Slavic March.’ He liked to end a lot of his concerts with this piece, partly because he liked it so much and partly because audiences just love it,” Fahey explained.
In the middle of the program, this year’s victors of ECHO’s Young Artists Concerto Competition will perform. First up is Hope Hoang on harp with George Fredrich Handel’s “Concerto in B flat major,” followed by Brigham Smith on piano with Franz Liszt’s “Concert No. 1.”
Both musicians are backed by solid chops.
Smith is an engineering student at Westside High School. He started piano lessons at age five and won first place in the HMTA Piano Contest 2018 - 2021 and placed second in the 2023 Houston Music Teachers Association high school division performance contest. He is a regional finalist and will compete at state in the 2023 Texas Music Teachers Association piano concerto contest in June. Smith is an auditioned member of the National Piano Guild and competed in the 2019 National Steinway Piano Competition. He received the honorable mention award at the North Texas Young Artists Competition in 2021 and was a 2022 Houston Young Artists Competition Finalist.
Hoang is a student at Memorial High School. She started playing the harp eight years ago and received first place at the Milligan Harp Competition in 2017. Additionally, she has participated in the Houston Summer Harp Festival, receiving the Mozart Scholarship in 2018 and the Cynthia Cooper Memorial Scholarship in 2021. Currently, she is playing with the Memorial High School orchestra and band, and she also performs alongside the choir at her church for holidays and special events.
“These two played with a passion and emotion that was well beyond their years. You could almost feel the composer in the room,” Fahey said, regarding their audition. “We had many contestants who could play well, technically. These two played well technically and also stood out artistically. They brought the music over the footlights, so to speak, and they will do the same on Thursday night.”
Energy Corridor of Houston Orchestra will present “Academic Festival” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, 8900 Bellaire. For tickets or information, visit echorchestra.org. $10 – 15. Children 12 and under are free.