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ARCHIVE: HSO (January 2017)

Originally published 1/13/2017

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, (“Emperor”), was the featured work on the Houston Symphony concert at Jones Hall on Thursday. The soloist was the 26-year-old prize-winning Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov. James Gaffigan conducted a unique program that began with the concerto and included Strauss’s Don Juan and Liszt’s Les préludes on the second half.

Beethoven did not choose the title of his Fifth Piano Concerto, though “Emperor” applies to the grandeur of the first movement, which begins with three majestic orchestral chords embellished by the piano, and themes that have a martial quality.

Behzod Abduraimov has a growing international reputation, having received praise for his virtuosity and tonal variety. His technical command was in full evidence Thursday evening, with virtually perfect execution. Abduraimov took a Classical approach to the concerto, with restrained phrasing and steady tempos. In the first movement, it seemed the young pianist would have preferred softer and more delicate dynamics at times, were it not for some imbalances with the orchestra.

Conductor Gaffigan rarely insisted on pianissimo dynamics, making it necessary for Abduraimov to play out more. Some scale passages leading into orchestra entrances were not perfectly aligned by Gaffigan, and neither was the last chord. Balance issues within the orchestra were evident where descending bassoon passages were lost in the texture. For their part, the Houston Symphony played quite well. Tricky passages, such as the viola part leading into the recapitulation, were excellent.

The second movement, an ethereal nocturne, allowed Abduraimov to explore more sensitive dynamics and expression in dialogue with the orchestra. Here too he was not consistently supported by Gaffigan, whose shaping of the exquisite string lines did not always provide empathy with the soloist.

The third movement is a joyous rondo, alternating between country-dance foot stomping and dancing on tiptoes. While note-perfect, Abduraimov could have provided more contrast to the ethereal second movement through the indicated sforzandos and implied bounciness. There was fine ensemble throughout, but Gaffigan’s leading of the timpani ritardando at the end of the movement seemed excessive.

The second half of the concert featured the Houston Symphony in not one, but two blockbuster symphonic poems, providing the means for the orchestra to display their corporate virtuosity.

James Gaffigan

James Gaffigan did an excellent job of leading the two works, with more success in Les preludes, the more rhythmically structured of the two. The Houston horns were shown to finer advantage here, with woodwinds and strings brilliant and poetic as required.

In Strauss’s Don Juan, Gaffigan’s gestures were designed to show musicality, sometimes at the expense of internal clarity and security in the orchestra. Yet the conductor kept the massive forces cohesive, while eliciting nuanced dynamics and sensitive phrasing.

Don Juan would be nothing without secure brass playing, the instruments that personify the title character. The stellar horn section featured a cohesive sound and there were fine solos by principal William VerMeulen. Principal trumpet Mark Hughes played confidently as well, providing powerful and stylish solos throughout. Oboist Jonathan Fisher was wonderfully seductive in his extended solo.

The string sections performed brilliantly, with treacherous exposed parts handled with confidence. Visiting concertmaster Camilla Kjøll (First concertmaster of Gaffigan’s Lucerne Symphony Orchestra) played with lovely tone in her solos.

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