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Houston Symphony’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ turns vices into virtue

Bramwell Tovey, Storm Large
Houston Chronicle

Why must it feel so good to be bad? Poets and philosophers have been trying to reconcile this paradox for eons; even the most virtuous among them have pretty much admitted sometimes it’s better to just give in.

Under guest conductor Bramwell Tovey, this past weekend the Houston Symphony let their hair down (after a fashion) by bundling three works that, if not quite first-rank in their own right, together present an appealing evening of orchestral glamour and sensuality, absent any true wickedness.

You know, the friendlier vices.

The main course was Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s satirical, cabaret-style “sung ballet,” which debuted barely three months after Weill fled Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. After he landed in Paris, fortune smiled on the nearly destitute composer in the form of a wealthy British businessman seeking a showcase for his ballet-dancer wife.

The dancer’s role has since been written out of “Seven Deadly Sins”; rather, it’s been absorbed into the personality of Anna, the narrator and leading lady portrayed here by multifaceted vocalist Storm Large. Anna is a good girl only partially corrupted by the task before her, which is to travel through seven U.S. cities and earn enough money as a dancer for her family to build a respectable home back in Louisiana. As she does, the artistic and practical sides of her brain maintain a steady debate over whether what she’s doing is right, though any reservations she may have ultimately don’t seem to slow her down.

As Anna’s family, the all-male vocal quartet Hudson Shad quickly makes it plain they’re actually less concerned with her virtue than how much money she can send back home.

Each sin corresponds to a city (pride, Memphis; anger, L.A.; lust, Boston, etc.) and musically to a popular dance a la tango, foxtrot, or waltz. Weill’s music is expressive and bustling, much like Hollywood film scores at the time, but overall remains a backdrop to the tug-of-war between the two sides of Anna’s personality.

The 1930s had their own set of issues with gluttony and lust, for example, and at times Brecht’s sense of irony seems a little muddled to a modern audience. (I thought so, anyway.) But other times it’s perfectly in sync, like when Large spontaneously updates the nefarious deeds of one “Mr. Big” to Harvey Weinstein. Throughout the performance, the role of Anna fits her exaggerated facial expressions and droll delivery like her black floor-length gown and matching thigh-high boots; sometimes she says as much with her eyes as her lips.

The dynamic singer, who has parlayed a runner-up spot on the mid-2000s CBS reality show “Rock Star: Supernova” into a successful gig as an all-around latter-day chanteuse, refrained from unveiling her full vocal might until Anna’s climactic reconciliation with her family, fulfilling that old showbiz adage to always leave ’em wanting more. After the final curtain, her animated stage exits and re-entrances offered yet another hint that Large could well be keeping her talents on a rather short leash here.

Before intermission, Tovey — whose conducting style nearly belongs to one of the martial arts — led the orchestra through “Le poem de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy),” Alexander Scriabin’s 22-minute symphonic exploration of pure sensory pleasure. Dense and immersive, his extended search for a “mystic chord” teases listeners for some time through a series of swells and fades — at times the trumpets seemed to be scouting the way forward for the rest of the ensemble — before finally arriving at a resounding payoff of bells, percussion and orchestral unity.
Read the full review here