Houston Symphony music director Juraj Valcuha
Photo: Luciano Romano
The Slovakian capital of Bratislava, hometown of Houston Symphony music director-designate Juraj Valčuha, is a cultural crossroads: close enough to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague to make for an interesting place to grow up. The countryside is saturated with folk traditions and the music that goes along with them.
“In every single village, every single part of the country, you have a different language, different kind of melodies — extremely rich,” Valčuha says. “That’s why Bartok was very interested in this part of Europe.”
Valčuha’s musical education started with the folk songs he heard his mother singing. Inspired by a great-grandfather who played it — and actually learned it while working in the steel industry in Pittsburgh — he also took an interest in the cimbalom, a trapezoidal stringed 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 “Sherlock Holmes” film likewise highlight the cimbalom.
But orchestral demand for professional cimbalom players is not great, so upon the advice of his dad, Valčuha (now 46) switched to studying composition and theory when he entered Bratislava Conservatory at age 14. Composition students were expected to conduct their own works, and “My teacher told me that I should do it seriously,” Valčuha recalls. Later he studied under a pair of highly respected mentors, Ilya Musin at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory and Janos Furst at the Conservatoire Supérieur de la Musiqe in Paris.
Houston Symphony: Beethoven 9
When: 8 pm May 20-21; 2:30 pm May 22
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. (livestreamed May 21)
Details: $43-$144; 713-224-7575; houstonsymphony.org
The soft-spoken Valčuha (pronounced your-ai val-choo-ah) first came to Houston to guest-conduct the symphony in 2011, a couple of years into his tenure leading the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, based in Turin, Italy. When he returned seven years later to lead a program that included Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, “I had a very strong feeling, very strong connection musically with the orchestra,” he says.
“There was mutual trust, which is very nice,” Valčuha continues. “When you trust the orchestra, when you can rely on musicians [and] when they trust the conductor, you can let your imagination [go] free during the concerts.”
Returning yet again in March 2021 to conduct Beethoven and Copland, his warm feelings about the orchestra were reciprocated. “His expressions stood out, even behind a mask,” principal tympanist Leonardo Soto told the Violin Channel’s website. The organization was in the middle of searching for a successor to Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who had been music director since the 2013-14 season, and Valčuha came along at exactly the right time.
“Juraj stood out for his evident chemistry with symphony musicians and his commitment to musical excellence,” said Houston Symphony CEO John Mangum when Valčuha’s appointment was announced last July. “We know that he will build upon the work of the music directors before him to support the highest level of performance imaginable for our musicians.”
Valčuha says he admires the way the symphony managed to successfully produce a weekly in-person concert series during the pandemic — making them one of the few orchestras in the world to do so — and is impressed with the traditions established by previous music directors such as Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, Andre Previn, Christoph Eschenbach, and Orozco-Estrada. In fact, one concert series next season is an exact replica of a Barbirolli program from February 1966, featuring Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with soloist Augustin Hadelich.
“I’m very interested in repertoire from the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century — all these different schools, different colors, coming from France, Vienna, Bartok, Janacek, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Italian composers, French composers,” Valčuha says, citing the “extreme colorfulness of this music, and richness of the music languages.”
Houston to Naples and back
In all, Valčuha is scheduled to conduct nine concert series in 2022-23. Several are on back-to-back weekends, providing him a luxury denied many conductors: down time in his adopted city during the week. He’s interested in visiting the Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, and Space Center Houston (so far), as well as diving into Houston’s world-famous dining scene.
“I’m looking forward to [using] this time to explore the city,” he affirms.
Until December, Valčuha is also the music director of Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Choral programming makes up a substantial part of the coming season, including the opening-night performance of Verdi’s Requiem and season-finale symphonic staging of rarely performed Stravinsky opera “Oedipus Rex.”
He enjoys might be faster voice choral concerts because can be so unpredictable: “One evening, one evening you need to go slower; you have to listen carefully,” Valčuha says. “It gives you some kind of flexibility.”
That applies to this weekend’s performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Valčuha’s official debut as music director-designate and an early clue at the orchestra’s direction under his stewardship. He didn’t hesitate to pair one of the most familiar and beloved works in the repertoire with a relatively new piece that stands in stark contrast with the Ninth’s message of universal brotherhood: Atlanta-born composer Carlos Simon’s “Elegy: A Cry From the Grave ,” written in 2015 and dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, “and others murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power,” according to Simon’s program notes.
“I program only the music I like to conduct,” Valčuha says, “so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.