Hans Graf's soft-spoken exterior is deceptive: the Austrian-born conductor, who makes his New York Philharmonic debut this month, has had a fascinating life in music that at one point included a stint as music director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad. The professional career of the man who is currently music director of the Houston Symphony included formative years as a scholarship student at the Leningrad Conservatory, where his teachers, Arvid Jansons (father of conductor Mariss Jansons) and Evgeny Mravinsky (conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic) taught him a "deep respect for Russian music," he says. He also met his wife, Margarita, on the steps of the conservatory.
"Given my past and background," Mr. Graf says, he's happy to be leading an all-Russian program for his Philharmonic debut. He confesses he's had a fondness for the three fairy-tale-based pieces by Lyadov (The Enchanted Lake, Kikimora, and Baba Yaga) for 20 years‹despite the opinion in Leningrad that the composer was "never able to write anything longer than a five-minute piece." That probably was true, Mr. Graf concedes, "but these five-minute pieces are very well done." And together they form a nice unity. Similarly, Tchaikovsky's Little Russian Symphony is "very close to my heart." It was the first Tchaikovsky piece Mr. Graf ever conducted‹in Milan, after winning the Karl Boehm Competition in 1979. "For me, the second movement is like Bizet's Jeux d'enfants or Schumann's Kinderszenen," he says. "It has childlike innocence and purity." The program also includes Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by Hélène Grimaud.
Mr. Graf also has Mozart in his blood: he made a recording of the complete symphonies as music director of the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg, where he lives. (From there‹his first major post‹he went to orchestras in Calgary, Canada, and Bordeaux, France, before landing his current position in Houston.) But he resists being identified too closely with any one composer or genre, saying, "I've actively tried to make my repertoire as diverse as possible."
Charles Ward is the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle.