Houston Symphony's vibrant 'Italian' program boasts music for all seasons

03.16.08
Adele Anthony
Houston Chronicle

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is one of those orchestral works that has been heard so often - not just in concert, but excerpted in countless films, commercials and such - that one might reasonably wonder how it could possibly retain its freshness.

But the famous set of four violin concertos, each describing a season in three brief movements, is also one of those works that seems to have captured in music the bubbling vitality of nature - an eternally renewing force.

That quality was apparent in the Houston Symphony's performance Friday night at Jones Hall, with guest conductor Christoph Campestrini leading an exact yet energized reading, highlighted by the adroit solo violin work of guest artist Adele Anthony (a last-minute replacement for Benjamin Schmid, who withdrew earlier in the week due to a family emergency.)

Large screens on either side of the stage supplied lines from the poems Vivaldi created, describing in simple words the scenes he painted musically in each passage. One certainly recognized such effects as the chirping birdsong in Anthony's solo line early in the famous opening Allegro of Spring, and the icily stabbing string motifs in the Allegro non molto of Winter.

Anthony's assertive attack lent definition to her solo line throughout. The warmth and sweetness of her playing shone in one of the most appealing movements, Winter's Largo, representing a cozy fireside scene, a respite from the frigid movements framing it.

The Italian-themed program continued after intermission with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 (Italian), inspired by his travels there.

Showing a more dramatic dash here, Campestrini's conducting brought out the sprightliness and vigor of the opening movement, the forces nicely balanced. The orchestra's smoothly flowing work conveyed the more subtle appeal of the two interior movements. Yet it was the dynamic rendering of the Saltarello finale that made it the work's triumph, a whirlwind of sound that maintained precision despite the dizzying pace.

Though an overture is usually the curtain raiser at such a concert, Verdi's Overture to La Forza del Destino proved the perfect finish for this one - calling for the evening's largest forces in service of the program's gutsiest music.

From the emphatic brass chords that opened the piece, Campestrini led the musicians in a properly volatile and expressive rendition. Moving through its compilation of the opera's most memorable themes, there were hauntingly lyrical passages in the strings and woodwinds, and absolutely regal work from the brass section as the overture built to its big finish, very nicely realized.