Pianist and orchestra players shine in Houston Symphony’s virtuosic program

Fri Jan 13, 2017 at 1:14 pm
By Lawrence Wheeler
Behzod Abduraimov performed Beethiven;s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Houston Symphony Thursday night.

Behzod Abduraimov performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Houston Symphony Thursday night.

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

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.

The concert will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. houstonsymphony.org


4 Responses to “Pianist and orchestra players shine in Houston Symphony’s virtuosic program”

  1. Posted Jan 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm by George

    We attended the Sunday concert. I believe the issues you noted were solved by then. All three performances were dazzling, and essentially flawless. The encore was Liszt’s “La Campanella”.

    The HSO is rock solid in every section. I’ll add to your list of highlight performers Mark Nuccio (clarinet), David Kirk (tuba), and Brinton Averil Smith (cello). The HSO’s brass section is unsurpassed, the closest thing we have today to the Chicago Symphony’s “golden era” brass section under Reiner and Solti. Did you notice Dale Clevenger’s son in the horn section?

    I did a bit of research on Camilla Kjøll, who I agree played beautifully. She is the soloist in a work by Mark Adderley called “Bite the Dog II”. This is a mind-blowingly difficult and long work. Her playing is absolutely spectacular.

  2. Posted Jan 18, 2017 at 10:14 am by Kris Finley

    What was the piece that the pianist played for an encore on Saturday evening? It was so familiar and yet it escaped our memories. Thank you for an answer.

  3. Posted Jan 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm by Sidney South

    Last Thursday I travelled from Austin to hear the Houston Symphony for the first time. I agree with Mr. Wheeler’s critique regarding the balance issue in the Beethoven Concerto between the soloist and the orchestra. I thought the orchestra over-powered the piano in several passages. In comparison the 2nd half was an amazing contrast to the first. The conductor, the players – especially the soloists – gave an electrifying and masterful performance!

  4. Posted Jan 25, 2017 at 2:03 am by Lawrence Wheeler

    George- I did notice Jesse Clevenger in the French horn section; also, the solid playing of Ian Mayton on 4th horn. I agree, the brass section was sonically impressive. Limitations of space did not allow for mention of all the fine HSO soloists. Thanks for the tip about the Adderley piece. I look forward to hearing it.

    Kris- There was no encore on Thursday. George said on Sunday it was Liszt’s “La Campenella.”

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