Review: Conductor Jerry Hou rises to the occasion in ASO subscription debut

Jerry Hou is on the fast track. He started as a professional trombonist, but turned to conducting after his instrumental career was ended by injury. In 2020, he joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as associate conductor and, now 46, has received a title upgrade to “resident” conductor.

Although he lives in Houston with his wife and son, and teaches at Rice University, he’s music director of the high-powered Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and also “cover” conductor for the main ASO concerts — attending rehearsals to offer advice about on-stage. balances and related sonic matters and, more crucially, to step in if the scheduled maestro slips on a banana peel and can’t lead the concert.

He has also He has been assisting as a cover conductor at the New York Philharmonic and will make his podium debut there later this season.

Thursday was Hou’s ASO subscription-concert debut, a big deal for an up-and-coming conductor. Perhaps not surprisingly, the orchestra seemed very relaxed while Ho at first seemed very nervous. By the concert’s end, his talents were abundantly clear.

They opened with two recent works by prominent female composers – paired together for the start of Women’s History Month.

For many years, Joan Tower (born in 1938) was among the most-performed of all American composers, with seemingly every classical music award in her overflowing trophy case. Ho programmed her 1920/2019, part of a New York Philharmonic commission to honor the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. That amendment passed in 1920, and Tower links it to the year she wrote this music, in 2019, during the #MeToo movement. In a program note, the composer calls these two years “probably the most historically significant years for the advancement of women in society.”

Jerry Hou
Composer Joan Tower was in the audience for the performance of her “1920/2019.”

1920/2019 It opens with a percussive bang, of bass drum and wood blocks, and the orchestra joins with a rising line that’s as much atmosphere as melody. There are delightful passages across the work’s 15 minutes, such as a nostalgic solo cello line augmented by the tuba, or the many short, often zesty stand-alone bits for violin, or clarinet, or trumpet, or horns — almost a mini concerto for orchestra.

Tower’s music is of high craftwork with a premium on texture and clarity, with no wasted motion, no obscured sounds from the middle of the ensemble. Hou conducted in crisp, compact beats.

The audience at first gave the performance rather mild applause, till the composer herself (who’d been seated in the audience next to the great Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton) walked up onto the stage, to cheers and boisterous appreciation.

We’ve been hearing a lot of Jessie Montgomery’s music recently. Last season the ASO played her poignant Records from a Vanishing City and earlier this week the Catalyst String Quartet offered what’s perhaps her most famous piece, strum, at Spivey Hall. (A violinist, Montgomery had been a Catalyst member before her composing career took off.)

Born in 1981, she’s now working on a doctorate at Princeton, teaching violin and composition at The New School in New York City, and is the Chicago Symphony’s composer-in-residence. Still growing as an artist, she moves from strength to strength.

Thursday we heard “Rounds,” a 17-minute concerto for piano and strings, which filled the middle of the concert. Here Montgomery stepped far outside her comfort zone. It was composed for, and with, Awadagin Pratt, who was also Thursday’s soloist. The piece premiered last year and has already been performed widely across the US, by both major and regional orchestras.

Guest pianist Awadagin Pratt added modernist techniques to Montgomery’s piece.

As always, Montgomery has an ear for beautiful sounds and striking combinations. Sometimes the energy comes from its simplicity, as when the piano unspools a flowing line — in the accompaniment role — under rhythmically groovy plunks and jabs from the string section.

For most of the opening section, however, the solo piano part sounds awkward and un-pianistic. Pratt’s commanding virtuosity wasn’t tapped, notably, till the semi-improvised solo cadenza, where the pianist reminded us what 10 fingers and a Rachmaninoff-style technique can deliver. He even added cool modernist elements, standing up to pluck and strum inside the piano.

The difference between Montgomery’s timid keyboard writing and Pratt’s full-flavor approach threw the composition entirely out of whack. (We might expect the composer to fill out the piano part in a revised edition.)But then near the end, the piano — again in an accompanying role — strikes chords that sound like bells and tuned gongs below a misty, gauzy string texture. It was pure Montgomery, a heart-felt moment of incredible beauty.

As an encore, Pratt returned for Couperin’s Les barricades mysteriesplayed flowingly and very broadly.

After intermission, Hou and crew returned for the conductor’s specialty. He wrote his dissertation on Béla Bartók’s masterpiece Concerto for orchestra and, not surprisingly, knew the details of the score inside and out. The brooding opening movement was perhaps unnecessarily ponderous, with phrases given blocky shapes or were forcefully clipped for emphasis. But soon they all relaxed. In Hou’s taut, precise gestures, everything fell into place and his reading was clear, balanced and expertly paced.

Jerry HouJerry Hou
Hou included a well-placed inside joke during Bartók’s masterpiece “Concerto for Orchestra” that caused many in the audience to laugh out loud.

The Concerto for orchestra, from 1943, holds so much content, and takes us to so many places. There are lush pastoral sections and gritty, industrial images, there’s Impressionistic haze and Bach-like chorales, there’s a grand nobility and an of-the-soil peasant vibe. Meanwhile, the whole thing is in constant motion around the orchestra as various sections are highlighted.

The ASO brass, so happy to blast and blare when given the chance, were here strong and disciplined. In the fourth movement, Bartok rudely quotes a repeated theme from Shostakovich’s war-time Seventh Symphony, apparently mocking the composer as a Soviet toady. (Boy, was he wrong about that.) Just as the theme was played, ASO trombonist Jason Patrick Robins let loose a shrill, vulgar raspberry. They timed it perfectly. The audience got the joke and laughed.

Along the way, Hou grew in confidence and authority. He led the scurrying and stormy finale with white-hot intensity and crafted the fugal section theatrically, as rhetoric. The Concerto for orchestra It is a marathon for the players and a tough score to navigate for the conductor. In his first subscription test, he accepted it.

The program repeats Saturday, March 4, at 8 pm


Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington PostLondon’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.

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Andrew Naughtie

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