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ARCHIVE: HSO (November 2014)

Originally published 11/16/2014


This afternoon I heard the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall performing a new work and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, conducted by Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Concertmaster Frank Huang was soloist in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. The program opened with Three Latin-American Dances by composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank. Her second work presented by the HSO this season, it showed an increasingly masterful use of orchestration. On display were brilliant and idiomatic passages for each section of the orchestra. The three movements were quite varied in style, drawing on influences from Bernstein to Bartók. The only overtly Latin-American sounding part came at the beginning of the third movement, with the three trumpets imitating Mariachi music. Orozco-Estrada was clearly an advocate of this music, conducting with energy and precision. The Houston Symphony was in top form.


Recently returned from a successful week as guest Concertmaster with the New York Philharmonic, Frank Huang played a refreshing account of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Having never played it in his youth, he learned the piece for these concerts and subsequently played it with the music. The stand was quite low and did nothing to interfere with his interacting with Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra, or his playing to or for the audience. Both visually and sonically he reminded me of Joshua Bell, with all the musical and technical aplomb that goes along with it. His string playing is of the highest order, with subtleties of nuance, power when needed, and fast-paced and highly accurate technical passage work. Frank was enjoying himself and the wonderful accompaniment provided by conductor and orchestra. The audience responded with a standing ovation extending through several curtain calls. Maybe he will feel the love in Houston and not move to New York, if asked.


Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is, in my opinion, the greatest symphony ever written. It can be heard or interpreted on may different levels– simply as a great sounding piece of music, as a personal statement of Beethoven facing deafness, or a profound message with universal meaning. Regretfully, I was less than thrilled with today’s performance. To begin, Orozco-Estrada turned around and started the piece before the audience had finished clapping, meaning the four most famous notes in music were obscured. Due to the fast tempo, it also took the orchestra some time to find its footing. By the repeat, the tempo, while fast, found its natural inertia. The movement sounded breathless in the bad sense. Tempi were driven into the fermatas. While not explicitly written in (as it is in the Scherzo), there is a slight slowing implied when approaching fermatas that musicians in Beethoven’s time would have observed (as in the fermata at a cadenza). As a result, violin chords and two oboe cadenzas, while beautifully played, had no emotional context. The second movement also suffered from unnaturally fast tempi. This movement has two themes, each with a different character. The first is a tender love theme, the second a majestic and military sounding theme. This novel concept of form and the contrast between the two themes is one of music’s greatest creations, but the driven pace deprived each of their special character. The Scherzo’s main theme was disjointed, with breaks interrupting the line. This theme can be heard as summoning up courage before battle, but the breaks create a feeling of doubt instead of instilling resolve. The trio was executed brilliantly by the HSO, with a guest principal bass player providing energy and leadership. The final movement was the most successful. The high-energy approach of Orozco-Estrada fit quite well with the movement’s song of victory, however the transition into the reprise of the 3rd movement was not together. In cases such as this, I tend to blame the conductor, not the orchestra, since such places need to be worked out in rehearsal. A taut performance must be taught. There is no question that this young conductor is talented and sincere in his desire to make a positive and lasting impact on this fine orchestra. Just as young soloists too often believe faster is more exciting, young conductors can make the same mistake when making musical decisions. We can only hope that today’s performance of this work is an anomaly.

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