Kozhukhin serves up a Rachmaninoff feast with Houston Symphony
Denis Kozhukhin performed Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with Andrés Orozco-Estrada leading the Houston Symphony Friday night at Jones Hall. The event was a feast for the ears.
Following his bow, the 30-year-old Russian pianist had to deal with an unbalanced piano seat. Rather than ask for a replacement, he signaled the Houston music director to begin, his ease on stage immediately winning over the Jones Hall audience.
This was confirmed by pianism that was intimate and communicative, coupled with intelligence and musical maturity. The opening, a hymn-like melody, was played simply and intimately, providing contrast to the powerful themes to follow. Kozhukhin played with expressive abandon in the cadenzas, and interacted with the orchestra like a fine chamber musician. His tone was consistently warm regardless of dynamics, and the fiendishly difficult piano part, considered by many to be the supreme test, was executed without technical or musical limitations.
Even in the softest piano passages balance was never an issue. Orozco-Estrada showed fine control and pacing of dynamics, and he maintained polished ensemble across the breadth and depth of the Houston Symphony. The orchestra featured several fine wind solos, including oboist Jonathan Fisher, clarinetist Mark Nuccio, and French horn William VerMeulen. The string sections produced richly cohesive sound and all the musicians were fully engaged in listening to the soloist and each other throughout. The performance culminated in a final section that was gloriously thrilling. The concerto was being recorded by Pentatone for future release.
Following an extended standing ovation, Kozhukhin offered an encore of the “Melodie” from Gluck’s Orpheo ed Euridice. Performed simply and elegantly, it served as a palette cleansing glass of champagne following the Rachmaninoff.
The concert began with George Gershwin’s American in Paris. As led by Orozco-Estrada, the Houston Symphony was in peak form, showing brilliant playing and showcasing Gershwin’s gift for orchestration. Excellent ensemble was maintained throughout, but sometimes at the expense of an intuitive feel of the jazz-styled rhythms. There were several stylistic solos that included a soulful solo by lead trumpet Mark Hughes. Guest concertmaster Marc Rovetti, from the Philadelphia Orchestra, played several solos with a beautiful sound and fine intonation.
John Adams, who turns 70 next month, is considered by many to be America’s greatest living composer. The Houston Symphony is presenting three works by Adams this season. Adams has a strong Houston connection, where his first opera, Nixon in China, was premiered in 1987, and is currently being performed by Houston Grand Opera. (The final performance is tonight.)
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony is based on music extracted from his opera of the same name. The title character is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” and centers on his work at the Manhattan Project. Utilizing a large orchestra, it has three movements, played without pause.
The short first movement, “The Laboratory,” is coarsely loud and menacing, much like the old science fiction movies that were the inspiration for Adams. Adams himself called the music “explosive.” The orchestra’s strong brass section and percussion provided ample volume to full bombastic effect. “The Panic” features multiple layers of rhythm and texture, led by fast and brilliantly played passages in the strings, punctuated by percussion and contrasted with menacing lines in the woodwinds and brass.
The heart of the symphony is “Trinity,” where Oppenheimer struggles with the ethics and morality of creating a device that would end the war but could ultimately destroy humanity. Here, oboist Anne Leek played quite beautifully in an extended solo. The opera’s best-known aria, “Batter My Heart,” is given to a solo trumpet, expressively played by Mark Hughes.
Speaking to the audience before the concert, Andrés Orozco-Estrada noted that there have been recent changes in our country that have created problems for some. He said, “Music is the solution.”
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. www.houstonsymphony.org