The Beat Goes On

After decades of financial troubles and nagging questions about their relevance, the Dallas and Houston symphonies are both hitting high notes.

Although the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Symphony hardly recognize each other’s existence, classical-music fans have argued about which city has the better orchestra for decades. Back when both symphonies were poorly housed, Houstonians could point to their name-brand conductors—Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, André Previn—as proof that they could attract the best. But by the end of the eighties, the strategies of the two organizations had clearly diverged. As the Dallas symphony poured money into a fine new facility to improve the sound of its acoustically deprived orchestra, the Houston Symphony invested in improving its performances by hiring a demanding European-trained pianist-conductor, Christoph Eschenbach. Both organizations achieved their goals, but under Eschenbach the Houston Symphony quickly pulled into the lead artistically. Dallas countered in 1994 by hiring the most promising American conductor it could find, Andrew Litton. Then, five years later, Eschenbach left to take command of symphonic organizations in Paris and his hometown of Hamburg—while continuing his association with Houston as conductor laureate.

These days, the good news is that folks are once again debating which of the state’s premier symphonies is superior. With budgets of around $21 million, both are playing better than ever and offering stimulating concerts. Both toured the major cities of Europe to rave reviews last summer, and both have healthy endowments boosted by successful fund-raising campaigns. Dallas couldn’t be happier with its charismatic young conductor. And the Houston Symphony’s affable new music director designate, Hans Graf, is generally considered a worthy successor to the much-respected Eschenbach (who in January accepted an offer to head the Philadelphia Orchestra).

Yet the two organizations face an insecure future as they struggle to hold on to aging audiences and attract new converts to classical music. The current anxieties are nothing new, as both symphonies have had their ups and downs in the not too distant past. In the mid-seventies a financial debacle resulted in the Dallas organization’s canceling concerts, firing its conductor and musicians, and shutting down operations to consider its options. As for the Houston orchestra, after years of creeping cost overruns, it faced a major financial crisis in 1997.

The Houston Symphony, which had been founded in 1913 with the patronage of Ima Hogg, was seriously in the red and had to ask its musicians to take a pay cut. By 1998 labor contracts and extensive touring and recording had plunged the symphony into debt to the tune of $7.3 million, and there was talk of a musicians’ strike. The organization had to borrow money, guaranteeing the loan with its endowment (soon to be $58 million, thanks to an ongoing campaign that is expected to bring in $25 million). In the nick of time, the city’s Wortham Foundation and Houston Endowment agreed to erase the debt in return for the promise of a balanced budget. Amid all the tension, Eschenbach, who led the symphony to new artistic heights during his eleven-year tenure, announced his intention to move on. Then a year ago the symphony organization took another hit when its executive director, David Wax, said he was bailing out in September, just before the start of the current season.

Followers of the Houston Symphony’s roller-coaster highs and lows could not have missed the irony in the title of a children’s concert presentation—“Emily Saves the Houston Symphony”—when they opened their advance season programs last summer. The program description read: “Find out how Emily restores musical order out of chaos!”

By early September the symphony again seemed in need of rescue. As the rehearsals started for the opening night all-Tchaikovsky concert in Jones Hall, the orchestra’s acoustically mediocre home since the sixties, the board had not yet named a new music director. And the prospects seemed to be dwindling as promising candidates who had auditioned as guest conductors were picked off by other organizations.

It was at this vulnerable point that the local alternative rag chimed in with the cruelest blow of all. Opening on a hostile note, an article in the Houston Press referred to the symphony’s musicians as “just a bunch of longhairs” playing a form of entertainment that many Houstonians “wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot baton” and questioned whether the symphony could—or even should—go on.

So it came as a considerable relief to the city’s symphonic-music lovers when they finally got some positive news. On September 9, the day of the season’s opening gala, longtime classical-music critic Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle wrote that the symphony was expected to name Hans Graf as its new music director. Ward went on to opine that Graf, the leader of the Calgary Philharmonic and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, was a good choice. At Graf’s debut with the Houston orchestra as a guest conductor last March, the thoughtful Austrian received high praise from musicians and critics. Wrote Ward at the time: “His leadership of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 and Orff’s Carmina Burana presented about as strong a musical case as I have heard so far this season for being the successor to conductor laureate Christoph Eschenbach.”

But Hans Graf’s five-year contract hardly fixed the symphony’s leadership problem for the short term. Graf will not take up his duties until next September, although he will conduct a long-scheduled concert in May. And because guest conductors and soloists have already been booked for the 2001-2002 season, Graf’s influence as music director will not be felt strongly until the following season.

In January the 51-year-old Graf was in Boston to conduct concerts featuring the Middle European classical mainstays Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. When I spoke with him by phone, his fabled warmth and openness were evident as he discussed his career and his future in Houston. As an Austrian exchange student in Russia during the Brezhnev era, Graf told me, he had studied conducting in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he met his wife of 27 years, Margarita. In Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, where Graf maintains his Austrian residency, he conducted the prestigious Mozarteum orchestra for a decade,

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