Opening U.S. Tour, Gewandhaus Puts Legacy On Display

Riccardo Chailly takes a bow after leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Houston.
Riccardo Chailly takes a bow after leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in its first tour concert in Houston.
By William Albright

HOUSTON — The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which launched a five-city American tour in Houston on Nov. 3 with music director Riccardo Chailly conducting an all-Mendelssohn program, surely sounds nothing like it did when Felix Mendelssohn became its music director in 1835, almost a century after the ensemble was founded. But the historic connections between the two cities and the composer made the Jones Hall concert headily akin to seeing Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Parsifal in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, or Boris Godunov in the Mariinski Theatre.

Znaider and Chailly rehearse in Houston.
Znaider, playing his Guarneri, and Chailly rehearse in Houston.

The orchestra takes justifiable pride in a sound it’s been burnishing for 271 years. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Chailly said the lower strings’ characteristic darkness is the foundation of the orchestra’s tone, which emphasizes a smooth blending of sections.  A member of the violin section since 1988 compared it to red wine. That signature sound definitely made it through customs.

The refinement of the orchestra’s collective voice was immediately apparent in the quiet, undulating opening measures of the Hebrides Overture. That first impression was reinforced at the start of the Reformation Symphony, even with the larger number of players, and in that work and the accompaniment to the Violin Concerto in E minor, the orchestra produced a wonderfully cushiony sonority.

The symphony’s famed Dresden Amens were intoned with a reverent hush, the first appearance of “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” hymn was similarly muted, the woodwinds and string duetted luminously in the midsection of the lilting Scherzo. The full ensemble’s mighty power was unleashed with no hint of harshness or strain. The brass section was on its best behavior all night so as not to pierce the unfailingly mellow and cohesive orchestral fabric. But with the addition of a third trumpeter (and a cymbals player) it came rousingly to the fore in the two encores, the Intermezzo and (especially) the Wedding March from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gewandhaus horn Roger Clemens warms up backstage in Houston.
Gewandhaus horn Roger Clemens warms up backstage in Houston.

Refinement was also the hallmark of Nikolaj Znaider’s performance of the Violin Concerto, its three continuous movements joined seamlessly. Playing his customary “Kreisler” Guarneri del Gesù (1741), he stressed tenderness, sweetness, and delicate songfulness. The first-movement cadenzas were ruminations, not showpieces, but he and Chailly took a dazzlingly brisk tempo for the skittering finale.

Historical connections pervaded the apparently sold-out event. Leipzig started the peaceful demonstrations that led to the fall of communism in eastern Europe in general and, on Nov. 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall in particular. Thus, the orchestra’s tour celebrates the 25th anniversary of the earth-shaking event that led to the reunification Germany the following year and Leipzig’s change of address from East Germany to just plain Germany.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus, which made its first U.S. tour in 1974, will also perform in Boston’s Symphony Hall (Nov. 7), the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark (Nov. 8), and Lincoln Center in New York City (Nov. 9 and 10), with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and the Bruckner Seventh Symphony programmed for some of those performances. But Houston was a logical choice for the tour’s starting point because it has been a sister city with Leipzig since 1993 and two Houstonians played key roles in the fall of the Berlin wall.

Riccardo Chailly greets former President George H. W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush.
Riccardo Chailly greets Former President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush.

The concert drew officials from both partners. A pre-concert press conference featured comments by Leipzig Vice-Mayor Andreas Müller, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, and German Consul General Ricarda Redeker. The performance was attended by 600 music students from both Houston and Germany. And the day before, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy hosted a free forum that featured a brief performance by members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, an excerpt from the film The Miracle of Leipzig, and a panel discussion on both the historic “Monday demonstrations” that led to Germany’s reunification in 1990 and the impact of the end of the Cold War.

Then-music director Kurt Masur played a key role in keeping the pivotal 1989 Leipzig demonstration peaceful, and the relationship between music and history was further underscored by the concert’s honorary chairmen: none other than 90-year-old Houston resident George H. W. Bush (who was present with Former First Lady Barbara Bush) and Houston-born James A. Baker III, America’s president and secretary of state when the wall fell.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.