Symphonic Music in Houston
More than the other major
orchestras in Texas, the Houston Symphony Orchestra began as a project
of fashionable society, when civic leader and art patron Ima Hoggqv marshaled
her forces to sponsor a concert on June 21, 1913. 35-members orchestra
played a diverse program under direction of Julien Paul Blitz. The concert
was a success and built enthusiasm for continuing activity. Blitz was
succeeded in 1916 by Paul Bergé, who remained until the orchestra disbanded
in 1918 because of World War I.
The 1920s witnessed many guest orchestras touring through Houston until the HSO was reconstituted under Uriel Nespoli in 1931. After his rather rocky tenure ( due to limited English proficiency and lack of understanding of social rules natural to Texans, his love for Wagner’s music that was the task the orchestra could not undertake at that time, still) and his successor’s, Frank St. Leger’s struggle with the low budget conditions effecting in unevenness of talent among its members (some of whom were amateurs) and the poor quality of some of the instruments, in the spring of 1936 the symphony society amended its charter and became officially the Houston Symphony Society. Ernest Hoffmann, began the 1936 season with renewed community support. Realizing the orchestra's limitations, he made moderate demands on it initially, but during his tenure he built the ensemble to major status. He was a model of thoroughness and extremely partial to the music of Richard Strauss. During World War II he organized numerous concerts for nearby army camps. On February 22, 1947, the orchestra played on NBC's national radio program "Orchestras of the Nation." An appearance on this program was a recognition of an orchestra's merit, and Burt Whaley, NBC national program director, claimed the Houston orchestra was one of the finest ever on the series. Despite these achievements, in 1947 the society asked Hoffmann to resign, feeling the conductorship needed new direction. This move caused a rift in the society and resentment on Hoffmann's part, and he finally relinquished his post at the end of the season under a cloud of ill-feeling.
During the following season the orchestra played under a number of guest conductors, among them Leonard Bernstein. Effrem Kurtz, the next conductor, served seven seasons, through 1953. With much more generous budget, he pushed the orchestra to the next level of virtuosity, especially in the string and woodwind sections. However, some less-than-enthusiastic reviews were still appearing in the press. Despite a brilliant procession of guest artists in 1949, among them Igor Stravinsky as guest conductor, audience attendance slipped throughout the early 1950s. Ferenc Fricsay brought with him a potential Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft recording contract in 1954, and conducted with great intensity but with uneven results. Because of his numerous demands, including plans for a new concert hall, he was released in mid-season, to be replaced by the ebullient and prestigious Sir Thomas Beecham.
In 1955 Leopold Stokowski arrived, loaded with charisma, exotic tastes, and exciting plans for several premieres each season, at which he often had the composers present. Although a segment of the audience did not appreciate his programming and some players resented his demands, under Stokowski the orchestra gained a new sense of its position and widened its coverage of new music. He left it more polished and confident, with a sharpened stylistic facility. Stokowski also made a number of recordings with the orchestra, including the Carmina Burana, Shostakovich's 11th Symphony, Gliere's Ilya Mourometz, and Wagner's Parsifal.
Sir John Barbirolli, who took the baton in 1961, maintained the orchestra's discipline, constructed stimulating programs, and built an enthusiastic audience, although his programs, like Stokowski's, included a fair percentage of modern music. The sound of the orchestra grew richer and more sophisticated while his tenure, what might have something to do with a few revisions in the ensemble. For the fiftieth anniversary season 1963–64, Barbirolli took the orchestra on a tour of the east coast. Their performance in New York got them unprecendently good reviews, which rated the Houston Symphony among the major orchestras of the country.
After decades in City Auditorium or the Music Hall, the HSO moved into the visually and acoustically fine Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in 1966. The new building brought a surge in audience attendance, but the more expensive hall also necessitated more frequent touring to generate income. Barbirolli became conductor emeritus in 1967 due to his health condition but he continued as a guest conductor until his death in 1970.
André Previn brought youthful vigor from 1967 to 1969, with evenings almost equally divided between traditional and modern music. During his tenure, an annual young artists' competition was organized under the Houston Symphony Society's supervision. More and more, the orchestra came to be regarded as a regional, as well as a city, treasure, although, the attendance of older patrons began declining.
Antonio de Almeida served as principal guest conductor before Lawrence Foster took directorship in 1971. He expanded the company's repertoire and acquired an exclusive five-year recording contract. The 1970s, however, brought funding problems; deficits grew while audience attendance eroded, as the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet rivaled the symphony.
The first Houston Symphony Marathon was held in 1977 on KLEF–FM, a fund-raiser designed to revive the orchestra's fortunes. In the early 1980s Sergiu Comissiona who claimed his goal was to make music part of the daily life of the population became artistic advisor and then music director in 1984. In Houston's sagging economy, the orchestra continued to experience debt and labor problems until the symphony was broke and near collapse, despite a successful East Coast tour that included a performance at Carnegie Hall. However, a five-year planning effort by the Houston Symphony Society and Comissiona's leadership helped bring the orchestra out of debt. The 1983–84 seventieth anniversary season drew nearly a quarter million dollars by featuring a repertoire that drew heavily on the classic and romantic masters and featured a series of particularly fine guest pianists.
Christoph Eschenbach became music director of the orchestra in 1988. He and the Houston Symphony recorded for Virgin Classics and Pickwick International. In addition to its tours in the United States, the orchestra performed in the Singapore Festival of Arts in 1990, the Pacific Music Festival in Japan in 1991 and in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in 1992. In 1993 Eschenbach and members of the orchestra formed a chamber-music ensemble called the Houston Symphony Chamber Players. In 2000 Eschenbach became conductor emeritus.
Maestro Hans Graf, who took the podium in September 2001, is the Houston Symphony's 15th music director. In a reflection of efforts to broaden the ensemble’s appeal, Michael Krajewski became the full-time pops conductor in 2000. In the seasons that followed, the orchestra, which consisted of 90 full-time musicians, annually performed more than 170 classical, pops, educational, and family concerts that were attended by an estimated 350,000 people. Additionally, by the mid-2000s the symphony had implemented an outreach program, Houston Symphony Community Connections, whereby musicians volunteered as performers and music coaches at various community settings throughout the city. During the summer, the orchestra performs the Summer in the City series and performs at its official summer home, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, tours the region with free Sounds Like Fun! concerts for children and presents the free Target Summer Symphony Nights concerts at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where it has performed for more than 60 years. Symphony concert tickets and schedule available on the official Symphony website http://www.houstonsymphony.org
For those who crave more symphonic music there’s The Houston Civic Symphony, Houston's first and finest community orchestra that performs 5 concerts annually. Since its beginning in 1967, the Civic has had a two-fold purpose: to present great classical music to the Houston community, and to provide a creative outlet for talented musicians. Musicians in the orchestra come from many backgrounds and occupations but all share a love for good music and joy in performing music with others.The orchestra performs great orchestra repertoire from all style periods that is both challenging and enjoyable. Soloists join the orchestra several times each year to perform concerto repertoire. Each year HCS sponsors a young artist concerto competition. Winners from that competition perform with the orchestra in concert late in the season. Schedule available @ http://www.civicsymphony.org