The Slovakian capital of Bratislava, birthplace of Houston Symphony Designated Music Director Juraj Valčuha, is a cultural hub: close enough to Vienna, Budapest and Prague to make it an interesting place to grow up. The countryside is saturated with folk traditions and the music that accompanies them.
“In every village, every part of the country, you have a different language, different types of melodies – extremely rich,” says Valčuha. “That’s why Bartok was very interested in this part of Europe.”
Valčuha’s musical education began with the folk songs he heard his mother sing. Inspired by a great-grandfather who played it – and learned it while working in the steel industry in Pittsburgh – he also became interested in the cimbalom, a trapezoidal string instrument similar to a hammered dulcimer. Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly made great use of its unique sound in his folk opera “Háry Janos”; the opening scenes of Guy Ritchie’s first film “Sherlock Holmes” also feature the cimbalom.
But the orchestral demand for professional cimbalom players is not great, so on the advice of his father, Valčuha (now 46) turned to the study of composition and theory when he entered the Bratislava Conservatory at the age of 14. Composition students had to conduct their own works, and “My teacher told me that I had to do it seriously,” recalls Valčuha. Later he studied with a pair of highly respected mentors, Ilya Musin at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory and Janos Furst at the Conservatoire Supérieur de la Musique in Paris.
Houston Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven 9
When: 8:20 p.m.-21 May; 2:30 p.m. May 22
Or: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. (live stream May 21)
Details: $43-$144; 713-224-7575; www.houstonsymphony.org
The soft-spoken Valčuha (pronounced your-I am worth-Selected-ah) first came to Houston to conduct the symphony as a guest in 2011, a few years into his tenure as head of the Turin, Italy-based Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. When he returned seven years later to conduct a program that included Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, “I had a very strong feeling, a very strong musical connection with the orchestra,” he says.
“There was mutual trust, which is very nice,” continues Valčuha. “When you trust the orchestra, when you can count on the musicians [and] when they trust the conductor, you can let your imagination run wild [go] free during concerts.
Returning once again in March 2021 to conduct Beethoven and Copland, his warm feelings for the orchestra were reciprocated. “His expressions stood out, even behind a mask,” lead tympanist Leonardo Soto told the Violin Channel website. The organization was looking for a successor to Andrés Orozco-Estrada, musical director since the 2014-15 season, and Valčuha arrived at exactly the right time.
“Juraj stood out for his obvious chemistry with symphony musicians and his commitment to musical excellence,” said John Mangum, CEO of Houston Symphony, when announcing Valčuha’s appointment last July. “We know he will build on the work of music directors before him to support the highest level of performance imaginable for our musicians.”
Valčuha says he admires how the symphony has managed to successfully produce a series of weekly in-person concerts during the pandemic – making it one of the few orchestras in the world to do so – and is impressed with the traditions established by former musical directors such as Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, André Previn, Christoph Eschenbach and Orozco-Estrada. In fact, a series of concerts next season is an exact replica of a Barbirolli program from February 1966, featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with soloist Augustin Hadelich.
“I’m very interested in late 19th century and early 20th century repertoire – all these different schools, different colors, coming from France, Vienna, Bartok, Janacek, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Italian composers, French composers”, Valčuha says, citing “the extreme color of this music and the richness of musical languages”.
Houston to Naples and back
In total, Valčuha is expected to lead nine concert series in 2022-23. Several take turns on the weekends, which gives him a luxury that many conductors are deprived of: spending time in his adopted city during the week. He wants to visit the Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, and Space Center Houston (so far), as well as delve into Houston’s world-famous culinary scene.
“I am eager to [using] this time to explore the city,” he says.
Until December, Valčuha is also musical director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Choral programming forms a major part of the upcoming season, including the opening night performance of Verdi’s Requiem and the season-ending symphonic staging of Stravinsky’s rarely performed opera “Oedipus Rex.”
He enjoys conducting choral concerts because the voice can be so unpredictable: “One night it might be faster, one night you have to go slower; you have to listen carefully,” says Valčuha. “It gives you a kind of flexibility.”
That applies to this weekend’s performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Valčuha’s official debut as Designated Musical Director and a first hint at the direction of the orchestra under his direction. He did not shy away from pairing one of the repertoire’s most familiar and beloved works with a relatively new piece that contrasts sharply with the Ninth’s message of universal brotherhood: “Elegy: A Cry From the Grave” by Atlanta composer Carlos Simon. written in 2015 and dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, “and others wrongfully murdered by oppressive power,” according to Simon’s program notes.
“I only program music that I like to conduct,” says Valčuha, “so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.