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ARCHIVE: HSO (May 2017)

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Originally published 5/12/2017

For his final subscription concert of the year, Andrés Orozco-Estrada chose a trio of twentieth-century works, each marked by stylistic differences but unified by revolutionary ideas.

Thursday evening’s concert at Jones Hall began with The Unanswered Question by American composer Charles Ives. Written in 1908, it was not performed until 1946. A solo trumpet musically asks “the perennial question of existence”; offstage muted strings represent “the silences of the Druids – who know, see and hear nothing,” and four flutes attempt to give “the invisible answer.” While the question remains the same through seven iterations, the flutes’ answers become increasingly agitated and frustrated, ultimately mocking the question itself.

Ives combines tonal chord progressions in the strings with an atonal question and atonal answers. This combination is remarkable given that 1908 is the date of composition.

Orozco-Estrada conducted his own theatrical version facing the audience, with an empty stage behind him. The hall was dark except for a spotlight on the conductor, creating a novel effect.

Unusually, this performance placed the strings offstage, which heightened the sense of timelessness. Even more unusually, Orozco-Estrada rearranged the solo trumpet part for several players, which was heard through opened doors around the hall.

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra to perform Bela Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 2, among the most difficult in the genre. Completed in 1931, Bartók utilizes polytonality (two unrelated keys used simultaneously) and retrograde inversion (themes repeated upside-down and backwards). The concerto follows a grand arch form, with similar themes in the first and third movements, and a second movement that is itself symmetrical.

Bronfman strikes an imposing figure, and this concerto seemingly requires all that physical strength just to get through it. With all the requisite endurance, Bronfman brought abundant technical prowess and intelligent structural clarity to the dense contrapuntal score.

A seasoned Bartok pianist, Bronfman executed the running chords throughout the finger-crushing first movement in amazing fashion. This was contrasted with his poignant expression in the second movement, the middle section of which boasted rapid-fire repeated piano notes and brilliant wind playing. The final movement was a joyous Hungarian dance, again performed by Bronfman with no technical limitations. With several piano soloists this season, Bronfman was a standout.

Aided by Bronfman’s innate chamber music sensibilities, Orozco-Estrada maintained cohesion throughout the rhythmically complex dialogue between piano and orchestra. Timpanist Ronald Holdman did excellent work with the prominent part.

For an encore, Bronfman performed Robert Schumann’s Arabeske. It was a palette-cleansing change after the Bartók, and showed his considerable capacity for delicacy and charm.

Following intermission Jones Hall was transformed with special lighting, balloons, and space around the orchestra to accommodate a semi-staged accompaniment to Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet. Choreographers Gabriel Galindez Cruz and Emilio Díaz Abregú worked with young dancers and puppeteers from Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School Dance Ensemble and Crespo Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School Dance Department.

Led by a very talented young man wearing a tin-foil hat, the young performers showed great spirit during their time in the spotlight. The puppeteers behind the orchestra were particularly effective in their pantomimes.

With Petrushka, Stravinsky made revolutionary use of the orchestra, writing a colorful score consisting of four parts with eleven dances. The Houston Symphony was top-notch, and virtually every instrument and section made excellent contributions to the performance. While many are worth mentioning, pianist Scott Holshouser was outstanding with the virtuosic solo piano parts, and first trumpet Mark Hughes played the extensive and demanding trumpet solos with style and precision.

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