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Bright Beginnings

Jones Hall
10/17/2013 -  and October 19, 20*, 2013
Sofia Gubaidulina: Märchen-Poem
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

Midori (violin)
Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada

A. Orozco-Estrada (© Julie Soefer)

As the crisp autumn air finally arrived in Houston to balm the sun-kissed city, the Houston Symphony welcomed Andrés Orozco-Estrada in his first concert as Music Director Designate. He, too, was a breath of fresh air, leading an energetic, user-friendly program that showcased his ability to shift gears with confidence.

Orozco-Estrada has an impressive record conducting new music, with a gift for sensitive and imaginative programming. Including Sofia Gubaidulina's evocative Märchen-Poem as a concert opener was a nice touch to precede two Romantic warhorses. He oozed charisma introducing the piece, although the apologetic tone was a bit perplexing once the music took shape: surely nobody in the audience could find this more "difficult" or "advanced" than any current Hollywood score. The work sits firmly in an early 1970s Zeitgeist of Eastern Bloc composers being exposed to and working with "modern" trends gradually leaking in from the West. The hyper-expressive, angular main melody comes from Berg via Britten, the clusters from Bartók via Lutoslawski. The orchestra responded to Gubaidulina's expert, delicate scoring, with clarinets and flutes (the sole wind instruments) creating a negative image of the multiple divisi in the string parts. The audience clearly appreciated the work, hopefully giving Orozco-Estrada courage to include even more adventurous scores on future programs.

Midori(© Greenfield Sanders)

Midori's performance of the Mendelssohn concerto was a masterclass in subtlety. The opening melody was limned with a natural rubato, but for the most part the music was allowed to speak for itself. This was introverted violin playing, and the highlights of the performance were the softer moments, where Midori's gorgeous tone and excellently variegated vibrato was at its most noticeable. She of course possessed all technical prowess to conquer the work's virtuoso passages (and then some), but she seemed content to celebrate the piece as a musical whole, never pushing too far into "fast-high-loud" territory. This, combined with excellent coordination from the podium and spot-on response from the orchestra, gave a welcome sheen of intimacy to a work that can easily become nothing more than a vehicle for a star soloist.

After intermission, Orozco-Estrada was tasked with leading the audience through Rachmaninoff's bloated Second Symphony, and did so marvelously. Even with the first movement exposition in tact, the energy of the performance never flagged. The orchestra gave its all, producing bold, brassy sounds (the horns especially excellent) and athletic accuracy in quick woodwind and string passages. The second movement--a no holds barred Totentanz where the composer, thankfully, foregoes the temptation to recede into yet another (admittedly lovely) lyrical, slow melody--was especially electrifying. In the outer movements' ever-returning lyrical sections and throughout the entirety of the Adagio, a con moto momentum was applied, with the yearning piquancy of Rachmaninoff's harmonic palette catalyzing rhythmic drive.

The concert showed that the Houston Symphony will be in excellent hands next season, when Orozco-Estrada takes over full time. As a contemporary music advocate, sensitive accompanist and charismatic guide through much-travelled territory, he showed truly intelligent, communicative musicality. The players of the orchestra were completely on board with him the entire night, and the audience gave an appropriately enthusiastic response after the finale of the Rachmaninoff. Great things lie in store for us!

Marcus Karl Maroney



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