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ARCHIVE: HSO (November 2019)

Originally published 11/30/2019

Tonight the Houston Symphony, led by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, presented “A Musical Feast – All-Strauss Thanksgiving.” The concert included virtuosic playing but also some quizzical programming choices. Having a single early work of Richard Strauss on a concert is usually enough to satisfy the desire for flamboyant orchestral writing in post-Wagnerian style. This program included not one but three early tone poems. By way of contrast, it also included the Four Last Songs, one of his very last works. Taken all together, this musical feast created an effect similar to Thanksgiving dinner, where you feel quite full from eating too much.

The selected order was curious. Orozco-Estrada began with Death and Transfiguration. While the opening is meant to portray a dying man with heavy irregular breathing, this musical effect was achieved as much by a slight insecurity in the ensemble as with the writing. Don Juan, being a much more familiar piece, would have provided a more assertive beginning. Fairly youthful musically, it would have contrasted nicely with the Four Last Songs, one of Strauss’ most profoundly beautiful compositions. Death and Transfiguration, followed by Till Eulenspiegel would have made for a nicely balanced second half.

Once settled in, Death and Transfiguration displayed gorgeous orchestral colors and the gamut of emotions – grief, uncertainty, agony, anger, hope, love, and resolution. Orozco-Estrada was typically passionate in his output, but somewhat less physical than usual in his conducting. It felt the focus was more on the music than on the show, which allowed the piece to unfold in a convincing if not compelling manner.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson was soloist in the Four Last Songs. These are some of Strauss’ greatest works and pinnacles of classical music. Faced with formidable competition, Persson’s version fell short of the mark. She has a very pretty voice, but she lacks power in the lowest octave. Many low notes and words were lost in the rich orchestration, not due to overly loud orchestral playing but insufficient vocal projection. A somewhat constant and unvaried vibrato did not enhance emotional output. Done convincingly, this piece can and should produce tears, but tissues were not required. The Houston Symphony contributed fine playing, highlighted by the French horn solo at the end of “September” and the violin solo in “When Going to Sleep.” Orozco-Estrada was sensitive and attentive with his interpretation.

Following intermission, Orozco-Estrada bowed, abruptly turned and began Don Juan before the applause had finished. Unfortunately, this obscured the bravura opening that propels off a 16th rest. This piece is on the standard audition list for virtually every instrument, so the musicians were armed and loaded for bear. With Orozco-Estrada’s uncompromising tempo, the Symphony players proved that this is a virtuoso orchestra. Every section was on display, with not a single weakness in sight or sound. Special mention should go to….everyone!

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks concluded the concert. The last written of the three featured tone poems, it has the largest orchestration. Prominently featured are first and third French horns, trumpet, E-flat clarinet, the violas, and solo violin. Guest concertmaster Juliette Kang played this solo, as well as several others this evening, with polish, security of intonation, and a beautiful tone. Conductor Orozco-Estrada recognized several players, then sections, and then the whole orchestra. He is justifiably proud of the musical growth of the Houston Symphony under his leadership.

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