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ARCHIVE: HSO (February 2017)

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Originally published 2/3/2017

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was the featured work on the Houston Symphony concert Thursday evening at Jones Hall. Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada led an energized and finely detailed performance of the iconic score. He was the ideal interpreter for the Latin style rhythms and underlying passion of the music, taken from the Broadway musical based on Romeo and Juliette. Andrés was able to convey a wide range of expression by alternately dancing on the podium and using confined motions to make the softer moments intensely beautiful.

The cool jazz riffs of the Prologue took just a few moments to settle in. The dreamy song “Somewhere” was introduced by a solo viola, played with a rich and expressive sound by Wayne Brooks. As the full orchestra gradually joined in, Andrés allowed the music to unfold with beautiful simplicity. He invited the audience to join in during the flashy “Mambo.” The “Meeting Scene” featured a violin solo by guest concertmaster Igor Yuzefowich, from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He was joined by three other violinists, making for a perfectly played quartet. The “Cool” section was energetically propelled by Brian Del Signore on trap set. The explosive “Rumble” was followed by the touching and nostalgic “Finale.” The Houston Symphony sounded in top form in this deceptively difficult and challenging piece, which is being recorded live for Pentatone, along with several other American works.

The unannounced encore was a commissioned orchestration of Stomp by John Corigliano. Jazzy and bluesy, it features the musicians stomping their feet while playing.

The concert began with Sensemayá by Silvestre Revueltas. Based on an Afro-Cuban poem about Man overcoming Evil, it features a persistent septuple meter maintained by a large percussion section. The main theme was presented by the tuba, expertly played by David Kirk. The orchestration includes the French horns interjecting shrieks and the brass playing menacing motifs. Orozco-Estrada maintained taut control, creating a trance-like effect to the rhythmic chant.

Making his Houston Symphony debut was Principal Bass Robin Kesselman. He joins a long tradition of outstanding principal basses of the Houston Symphony, some of whom were his teachers. He performed the Bass Concerto by Serge Koussevitsky, himself an outstanding bass player before becoming conductor of the Boston Symphony.

This is the best-known concerto for bass, and provides a technical and musical vehicle to showcase the instrument and soloist. Kesselman played with a beautiful, vocal sound, displaying a lively vibrato and spot-on intonation. The concerto’s many technical challenges, including a virtuosic cadenza, were executed with security and ease. His sincere musical expression outweighed any potential shortcomings in the work, and balance issues were minimized by solo tuning, which increases string tension. A reduced size ensemble and Orozco-Estrada’s sensitive accompaniment also aided the balance.

Following intermission, Orozco-Estrada presented Tangazo by Astor Piazzolla. Scored without low brass, the work has an extensive string section opening that was wonderfully shaped and played. It followed with a tango that featured several woodwind solos, including treacherously high French horns, with the strings using many percussive effects.

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