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ARCHIVE: HSO (September 2014)

Originally published 9/21/14

Hats off, gentlemen, a new era has begun! This weekend, the Houston Symphony presented the first Classical Series concerts with their new Music Director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Today, Sunday, was the third in the series. It featured a new work by a Gabriela Lena Frank, and André Watts as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Before the concert began, Ms. Frank appeared on stage with Orozco-Estrada to talk about her composition. A Rice-trained composer and Houston Symphony Composer-in-Residence, this is her second commission for the HSO. As she explained, Karnavalingo is “a short lively work for orchestra, which draws on the musical culture of my mother’s beautiful homeland of Peru.” When asked what style her music is, she said “joyful.” The work has several sections, each conveying different dance rhythms, and drawing largely on the percussion section. It is, indeed joyful. Evident in this piece, and throughout the afternoon, was Orozco-Estrada’s control of balance and texture, allowing the composition to be presented with clarity and defined pulse. Having the composer speak beforehand was a brilliant move on Orozco’s part. We go to classical music concerts and usually hear the music of dead white men. To hear a living composer talk about their own newly created music is a rare treat. The fact that the composer is a young Hispanic female makes it all the more interesting.

André Watts began his solo career as a 16-year-old prodigy, performing with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Now, fifty years later, he performs with all the brilliance and musical security that can only be called prodigious. With a deft and supple accompaniment provided by Andrés and the orchestra, André was free to explore new possibilities in a concerto he has performed innumerable times. What was being created before our ears is a prime reason for attending live concerts. It was a great musical moment in time, never to be duplicated exactly again. Some memorable moments came from beautiful clarinet and French horn solos, richly played viola section solos in the first and third movements, and exquisitely sensitive first violin section dialogues with the piano in the second movement. Watts moved easily from grand soloist to savvy chamber musician, to intimate moments where he is seemingly alone in his living room. The trio of trust between pianist, conductor, and orchestra kept the capacity audience spellbound–literally hanging on each note, so as not to miss the next sublime moment. A true test of a conductor’s musical ability is in working with a seasoned artist who plays with imagination and takes creative chances. Orozco-Estrada passed with flying colors.

Today’s performance of Ein Heldenleben marked two milestones. The first was the retirement of two long-serving members of the orchestra, Chris and Red Pastorek. They had played a combined 95 years in the HSO, and leave a legacy few anywhere can match. The other milestone was the performance, which is the best I have heard the HSO, ever. There have been many outstanding concerts, particularly just after Graf’s departure, but today brought fully together what was emerging before. This piece is, by its very nature, subject to bombast and excess, often making it a caricature of itself. If you ever wondered if Richard Strauss could sound tasteful or intelligent (rather than egotistical and clever), you needed only to have heard this performance. From the very first notes, played only(!) forte, instead of fortissimo, Orozco gave rapt attention to balance and the underlying emotional content. Written often with several simultaneous and interweaving voices, he gave clear indication as to rhythmic placement and dynamics. You could visualize the score from his cues and motions. Always free but never excessive, his conducting invited expressiveness and passion from the orchestra. They willingly responded. There was a depth of sound in the strings that comes from entire sections being engaged, not merely the front desks. The woodwinds had a balance and blend, not to mention intonation, that was superlative. There were literally too many wonderful solos to mention here. The brass section was simply great. The huge French horn parts were stunning in their unanimity, and the extensive solo parts were immaculate. The trumpets, especially the all-important E-flat trumpet part, were superb. The trombones and tuba were a steadfast backbone to the texture. The famous parallel fifths were perfect every time. Throughout, the balance within the orchestra was remarkable. The sound was uniformly beautiful, alternately forceful and delicate, but never forced or diffuse. There is a long history of the extensive and hugely difficult violin solos in Ein Heldenleben, with many excellent renditions. The violin solos played by Frank Huang were as fine as I’ve ever heard. Along with the new music director, Frank’s hire as Concertmaster was one of the best decisions the orchestra has made.

“World-class” is an adjective overused in the music business. It seems every city over 250,000 claims a world-class orchestra. But, I can safely state that what was heard today in Jones Hall may be equaled but not exceeded anywhere in the world. Bravo to all!

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