Arts / Performing Arts

A Look at Houston Symphony’s Bold New Music Director — Juraj Valcuha Brings a Whole World Perspective

His Father Doubted He Could Make a Living as a Musician

BY // 05.24.22

If the idea has crossed your classical music loving mind that maybe the Houston Symphony selects music directors based on a finely-tuned hotness scale, come sit next to us. After eight years of watching Andrés Orozco-Estrada helm the podium and then seeing in-coming director Juraj Valčuha during any of his electric guest conducting stints, the thought does occur.

But after I was invited to attend a private media conversation between Houston Symphony CEO John Mangum and music director designate Juraj Valčuha, I must admit my shallow error in judgment. We now know the Houston Symphony selects music directors based on a finely tuned charm scale. Well that and having intriguing musical insights, artistry and visionary plans for Houston Symphony’s classical future.

From his childhood musical influences growing up in Bratislava, Slovakia to his operatic programming ideas, Valčuha’s discussion with Mangum revealed a multifaceted conductor dedicated to a life of music who often shares his ideas laced with a bit of humor.

A quick glance at the education section of Juraj Valčuha’s resume show all those future directorship boxes ticked including studying music composition and conducting in Slovakia, then at the Conservatory in St Petersburg (with Ilya Musin) and, finally, at the Conservatoire Supérieur de la Musique in Paris.

Yet in conversation, the Houston Symphony’s new leader tells quirky and rich stories of a rather untraditional musical childhood.

While his mother loved singing, “My father didn’t want me to be only a musician,” Valčuha reveals with emphasis on the only. His father thought he might end up “playing in a cafe house in Vienna.”

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This paternal doubt about Valčuha’s ability to make a living from music might have come from his instrument of choice — the cimbalom, a type of trapezoidal-boxed string instrument that looks a little like the result of a piano, harp and foosball table mating.

Juraj Valcuha and Houston Symphony Executive Director and CEO John Mangum; Photo by Michael Breyer (2)
Juraj Valčuha officially signs on as Houston Symphony music director. (Photo by Michael Breyer)

Even his musical origin tale contains a deeper generational story as Valčuha’s first cimbalom belonged to his great grandfather who played as part of an immigrant community of steel workers in Pittsburg in the early 20th century. Around a hundred years later, Mangum would first see Valčuha in concert, guest conducting in Pittsburg.

Valčuha played the cimbalom with friends in a folklore music group — so his father might have had a point about employment prospects. Mangum noted that there are really only a few professional cimbalom players in the entire United States who all the orchestras call on rare times one is needed.

Instead of chasing those folk music cimbalom dreams, Valčuha studied composing and conducting in the conservatory.

“My teacher at the time told me I should do (conducting) seriously,” he says. “So I did, and now I’m here.”

Along the way to that Houston “here,” Valčuha has had a remarkable international career guest conducting throughout Europe, North America and Japan. Since 2016, Valčuha also has been music director of the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples and the first guest conductor of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin. He was chief conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI from 2009 to 2016.

 Juraj Valčuha on Houston’s Classic Future

Now Valčuha looks to the coming musical future in Houston. The upcoming 2022-2023 season, his first as director, already shows trends that he will likely continue in however many years he conducts the Houston Symphony. (During a Q&A period when he is asked where he wants to take the orchestra in the next decade, he replies with a dry: “You said how many years?”)

One type of programming that’s safe to expect from Valčuha in the future comes from his ambition to get the whole gang together on stage, something he just showcased in his recent concert with the Houston Symphony, Symphony Chorus and guest singers for Beethoven’s epic Symphony No. 9, with the nine minute contemporary appetizer of Carlos Simon’s Elegy for Strings.

“There is a connection between them because this Elegy is dedicated to those who have been wronged by an oppressive power, and in one place in the symphony there is text saying: all people become brothers,” says Valčuha, who notes musical and thematic connections when discussing many of his plans and programs.

This joyous urge to get as many artists on stage as possible, will be reflected in the next season’s Houston Symphony opener “Verdi’s Requiem.”

“This is an idea I would like to keep, to have the opening week with a big choral work,” Valčuha muses. “It might be a strange idea to open the season with a requiem, but as you know, it’s not really a religious work. It’s more a political statement a very dramatic work.”

Big drama will also likely appear throughout Valčuha’s future programming in the form of opera works, including in spring 2023 with Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

Valčuha believes some of the very best orchestras in Europe are ones that routinely program opera. He finds it gives them adaptability yet interconnection audiences can hear in the music.

“There is something in the sound of these orchestras because they have to be extremely flexible,” he says. “Every evening they play a different repertoire with the different singers. Sometimes the same singer might every night be in a different capacity to sing.

“There is a bigger flexibility to listen to each other, to accompany and play for somebody. They play as a group, they react as one person. They react not just to the conductor but also to the singer on stage.

“This idea to playing together to produce the same color, same phrasing.”

Valčuha will also continue to champion contemporary and a diversity of composers noting next season will showcase “big range of different composers from different countries.”

But he also plans to honor the Houston Symphony’s past during his tenure. Doing his homework, Valčuha asked to see old programs from the Leopold Stokowski and Sir John Barbirolli years. For the next season that homage to Houston music history will bring a concert recreating a Barbirolli program from the mid-1960s, including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique” and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

“This idea just came to me because the continuity is important, in general continuity in working in progressing with the orchestra,” he says.

After Valčuha and Mangum’s conversation, I asked Robin Kesselman, principal bass of the Houston Symphony, and one of the members of the directorship selection committee to give me a peek behind the scenes of how the Houston Symphony chose Juraj Valčuha and how Valčuha chose Houston.

“We were looking for someone who led with artistry first, and the artistic excellence was something that no stakeholder was willing to sacrifice,” Kesselman says. “That was always a primary focus. And then also making sure that it was someone we trusted from a human level to lead the organization and to lead Houston from an artistic standpoint.”

In the end, it was all about the artistry and the fit with the orchestra. Kesselman says that while Valčuha was being actively courted by several renowned symphonies, “He felt like this was where he was going to make his musical home.”

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