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The Sound of the Wild, Wild West

As thrilling as the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s final concert with Hans Graf was last Friday night – everything came together perfectly for a stunning Mahler 2nd – it’s bittersweet to see him leave. He’ll be back as guest conductor at HSO next year, in particular, from November 29-December 1, for a concert with pianist Ingrid Fliter (Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23), Beethoven’s sixth symphony, and Grieg’s In Autumn; and again, next April, when he’ll return for a program of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.  

Hans Graf (photo Bruce Bennett)

Hans Graf (photo Bruce Bennett)


The highlight of Houston Symphony’s upcoming season is surely John Adams’ visit in January and February for a program titled Adams Conducts Adams. This makes me wonder, though: who thinks of these program titles? It sounds to me like an all-Adams program, doesn’t it? After hearing him conduct Nixon in China at the Met, the thought of a concert devoted to his orchestral works is thrilling. But not quite- in addition to his own City Noir, in Houston Adams will conduct Copland’s El Salón Mexico and Korngold’s Violin Concerto, featuring Gil Shaham. Oh, couldn’t we have something like Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, at the least, instead of the Copland?

Much of the upcoming season is same-old same-old: examples include Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and at Christmas (wake me when it’s over) Handel’s Messiah. In short, the same music offered at symphonic concerts when I was a child, in the 1960s. The same music my parents complained was “nothing new.” Back then, at least, you’d get the occasional performance of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, or something brazenly atonal. Reading HSO’s press release makes me depressed at the lack of commissions from living composers, and the absence of almost anything written after 1940.

In addition to the Adams concerts, there are a few other bright spots. The weekend of November 1, Carlos Miguel Prieto will conduct a special set in celebration of Day of the Dead called La Triste Historia. The program includes work by Revueltas, Moncayo, and Juan Trigos (the latter with a film). I won’t miss that, or Christoph Eschenbach’s Mahler 8th next May.

But along with such riches, there is still kitsch. January’s Wild, Wild West! night is described in HSO’s press release as follows: “Join us for a program that explores the sights and the sounds of the wild West! Head out to the range with music from Hoedown and Billy the Kid. Dive into what makes Texas, Texas when a rodeo cowboy and performers from Theater Under the Stars help us explore our western heritage through song.”

 Head out, dive, explore. What happened to just sitting back and  listening?


  1. Well, isn’t the Wild, Wild West! program a pops concert? The description you quote doesn’t seem too unusual or out-of-line for a pops program, and goodness knows there’s a place for pops concerts in the programming of orchestras like the HSO.

    • thanks so much for commenting. You’re correct, perhaps I should have delineated between the “regular” programming and the Pops concerts, though the press release did not list the programs in two different categories, so I thought of them in the same light. the question that should be raised: are we headed towards more and more of a “Pops approach” to programming, even when it comes to “serious” concerts?

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