Joyful Community Engagement at the Houston Symphony

On a recent Sunday evening I saw an example of community engagement - true community engagement on a musical level - by the Houston Symphony. For a number of years now, Chevron has sponsored an annual Fiesta Sinfónica Familiar, a free concert at the orchestra's regular performance venue, Jones Hall. It has traditionally been conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto, the Houston Symphony's former associate conductor, but this year it was led by the rising Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra.

Among the many wonderful things about this concert was that it obliterated some of the clichés that abound in our world. One of these clichés is the idea that family concerts, particularly for groups who do not normally populate our halls, are likely to be noisy, distracted, fussy, whatever. At this concert, during the quiet movements (and there were many) you could hear a pin drop; even the youngsters were caught up in the music. Another cliché is that orchestras should concentrate on their existing audience, because those who don't normally come to orchestra concerts simply don't relate to symphonic music. Well, this 2,800-seat hall was full - completely full - and judging from what was heard at intermission in the lobbies, the audience was virtually all Latino. Ms. de la Parra addressed them more in Spanish than in English, and the reaction to her jokes or applause lines would confirm that virtually everyone there was a Spanish speaker. When she did a kind of geography check, the audience was overwhelmingly Mexican, with some from Venezuela, Argentina, and Cuba as well.

The program, though all Latino or Latino-related, showed no pandering to a family audience. It was a full-length concert, with an intermission, as follows:

GERSHWIN                            Cuban Overture

            PIAZZOLLA/LJOVA              Four Seasons: Two movements

            GINASTERA                          Estancia Ballet Suite   



            REVUELTAS                          La Noche de los Mayas

            MONCAYO                           Huapango

The orchestra played wonderfully, the concert was terrific, and the mood in the hall was that of a real fiesta. As an encore, Ms. de la Parra reprised the "Malambo" from the Estancia Suite - and had the orchestra and the audience dancing at their seats. Not figuratively. Literally. Along with 2,800 others, I was standing, swaying from side to side, and bouncing up and down twice-at-a-time when cued by the conductor. More impressively, she got the orchestra to do it as well. The joy throughout was palpable.

It's hard to describe in words the electricity, the energy, that was in the hall throughout this concert. Even during those quiet, intimate moments (the second movement of the Ginastera, the third of the Revueltas) you could feel the thread, the bond, between audience and music. This is what community engagement means - not statistics checked off on a grant application or government form, but making a genuine artistic connection with real human beings experiencing the greatness of music and being transformed by it. Congratulations to the Houston Symphony, to Chevron, and to Alondra de la Parra.

Oh, and one more thing: I had forgotten just how good an orchestra the Houston Symphony is -- their remarkable heritage of music directors (Barbirolli, Stokowski, Previn, Eschenbach), the first rate ensemble that they all helped to build and that Hans Graf is maintaining so well. When I hear an orchestra like this one, I become even more tired than I normally am about that old cliché of the "big five" American orchestras. I've long since given up trying to figure out what people mean when they say "we want to have a world-class orchestra" here. But if it means an orchestra whose performance level would do credit to any city in the world, then Houston has one.

September 12, 2008 1:34 PM |



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