One Mezzo, Two Texas Orchestras Do Mahler’s Third

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Orozco-Estrada, with soloist Kelley O'Connor (Anthony Rathbun photograph)
Andrés Orozco-Estrada led the Houston Symphony and mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor in Mahler’s Third Symphony.
(Anthony Rathbun/Houston Symphony)
By Mike Greenberg

DALLAS AND HOUSTON — To non-Texans, Houston and Dallas might appear interchangeable — oil men, big hair, people who are crazy-rich, people who are just plain crazy — but in truth the two towns offer vastly different musical experiences. For example, one weekend in May you could hear the Houston Symphony close its subscription season with Gustav Mahler’s vast, all-encompassing Third Symphony.  Then, just a few days later, you could hear the Dallas Symphony close its subscription season with Gustav Mahler’s vast, all-encompassing Third Symphony.

Mezzo soprano O'Connor was the soloist in both Houston and Dallas. (Dario Acosta)
O’Connor was the soloist in both Houston and Dallas. (Dario Acosta)

As if that were not diversity enough, consider the two mezzo-soprano soloists. Houston had Kelley O’Connor, but Dallas booked…what’s that?…“unable to appear?”…to be replaced by whom? Ah, yes. Kelley O’Connor.

Both Mahler Thirds were conducted by the orchestras’ respective music directors. Andrés Orozco-Estrada was closing his rookie season at the helm of the Houston Symphony. Jaap van Zweden has held the Dallas post since 2008.

The present writer, being a native-born resident of San Antonio and thus a neutral noncombatant in the Clash of the Mahler Thirds, undertook to hear what both orchestras had to say about that gigantic piece in the span of five days.

Alas, storm-related traffic congestion on the road from San Antonio greatly delayed my arrival in Houston for the May 17 matinee. Reaching Jones Hall shortly after the music started, I had to listen to the first movement through the auditorium doors. (The hall, a multipurpose facility built in 1966, is not equipped with sound locks.)

Even muffled by the doors, there was much to like in Orozco-Estrada’s leadership of the grandly processional first movement — his crisp, vigorous pacing, the fearlessness with which he gave full vent to Mahler’s most raucous, even vulgar, passages.

Orozco-Estrada: crisp, vigorous pacing. (Jeff Fitlow)
Orozco-Estrada: crisp, vigorous, fearless pacing. (Jeff Fitlow)

Once I was inside for the remainder of the work, however, the hall’s acoustical problems became too big a part of the story. The fan shape of the seating area robbed the sound of resonance, presence, and engagement. Orchestral balances were troublesome. The winds overpowered the strings, the cellos and double basses especially seeming to recede into the distance. O’Connor sounded bland in Houston — a far cry from the richness (but not heaviness), consoling warmth, and textual sensitivity she would project on May 21st in the Dallas Symphony’s acoustically superb Meyerson Symphony Center. (The same qualities came through last fall when, in compliance with the Texas Mahler Mezzo Consistency Act, she sang in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the San Antonio Symphony in its new hall, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.)

The women of the Houston Symphony Chorus and the Parker Elementary School Chorus sounded clean and strong in Jones Hall, but they didn’t match the visceral energy that the Women of the Dallas Symphony Chorus and the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas could convey in the Meyerson.

It’s astonishing that the Houston Symphony, an orchestra of considerable stature and ability, has not been given a worthier home.

The Houston performance was notable for a detail in the fourth movement. While the mezzo sings Nietzsche’s lines about pain and joy, the first oboe and then the English horn respond with two-note phrases that Mahler marked with the instruction “hinaufziehen” (to pull up) and the words “Wie ein Naturlaut” (like a sound of nature). Some conductors in recent decades — notably Benjamin Zander, in his 2003 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra — have interpreted those instructions as calling for a rising glissando, which is awfully difficult to execute smoothly on an English horn or on the French-style oboes in use everywhere in the world except the Vienna Philharmonic. (Zander’s delightful chronicle of the rocky road leading to the rather rocky glisses in the recording is available here. Orozco-Estrada chose to follow suit, and although the execution by principal oboe Jonathan Fischer and English horn Adam Dinitz fell a trifle short of perfection, the effect was magical.

Meyerson Hall: (Mike Greenberg photograph)
In Meyerson, orchestral sound envelops the listener. (Mike Greenberg)

In the Meyerson, Dallas has one of the great concert halls of the world. The sound of the orchestra envelops the listener like a bean-bag chair upholstered in mink. Miraculously, the hall does not pay for its remarkable resonance with a loss of clarity.

The sound of the Dallas orchestra — augmented to 111 players for the Mahler Third — was always clean, nimble, and gorgeously balanced, even in passages that Mahler marked with an indecent multitude of f’s (meaning very loud). Doubtless, van Zweden deserves much of the credit. The DSO did not sound nearly so luxurious or so responsive in the early years of the Meyerson, which opened in 1989.

Van Zweden proved to be a Mahlerian of the first water. His reputation for blazing intensity was certainly evident (although in that regard Orozco-Estrada may have had the edge), but the DSO performance was worthy of cherishing for other, more substantive values — for supple lines, astute tempo relations, alert rhythms, and, most of all, for the absolute cohesiveness of the architecture. Nearly every phrase, every detail had an end clearly in view. The work was performed without an intermission, but structural integrity made 96 minutes seem like a mere moment.

Jaap van Zweden: first-rate Mahlerian. (Marco Borggreve)
Jaap van Zweden: first-rate Mahlerian. (Marco Borggreve)

The conductor’s leadership of the numinous finale deserves special attention. Stripped to its bones, the theme that weaves through the sixth movement is like a Lutheran hymn tune, four-square and simple, even childlike. What Mahler does with that theme is enormously complex in harmony and counterpoint, and along the way he introduces a second, heavy-hearted idea. It’s a lot for a conductor to manage. Van Zweden managed it all with precision, but he never lost sight of the main theme’s reverent simplicity. All the complexity, all the details seemed directed to a single purpose — to pull that tune constantly forward, to lift it up, to bear it aloft, and finally to set it free for its ascent to Heaven. When the apotheosis came, in a sunburst of unison violins and violas, it was fully earned, and glorious.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.