By pure coincidence, no doubt, the Dallas and Houston Symphony Orchestras spotlighted new music for harp over the weekend. In Dallas, Bright Sheng’s Never Far Away mixed Eastern and Western elements with Yolanda Kondonassis as the impressive soloist. In Houston, the HSO presented the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Absolute Ocean for soprano, harp and orchestra. HSO principal Paula Page was the harpist.
Based on poetry by E.E. Cummings, Absolute Ocean is an appealing work in which two lyrical and atmospheric outer movements enclose a lively, rhythmically jerky section that forms a playful center. Soprano Twyla Robinson sang the poetry with a pleasing tone and clear enunciation. Page had a lovely turn in an interlude for harp and orchestra connecting the second and third movements. This work would be worth repeated hearings.
The concert, on Saturday night in Jones Hall, also featured Mahler’s loveliest work, the Symphony No. 4, with Robinson again as the soprano soloist. Hans Graf led a deeply moving performance that was remarkably subtle and varied, and Robinson beautifully captured the childlike spirit of the text.
The evening’s only negative was the muffled sound of Jones Hall’s public-address system, which made Thomas’ introductory comments only half-decipherable.