Houston Symphony preps for European tour with impassioned Dvořák

Fri Feb 16, 2018 at 2:08 pm
By Steven Brown

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall Thursday night. File photo: Julie Soefer

Europe-bound next month for the first time in more than 20 years, the Houston Symphony is warming up for the occasion in front of its hometown audience. Thursday’s concert at Jones Hall brought one of the anchors of the upcoming European road show with Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. 

Music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra recorded that turbulent work in 2014 for Holland’s Pentatone label and, if anything, they brought even more fire to it on Thursday.

The Seventh’s intensity may spring from extra-musical roots: Some Dvořák advocates point to a comment he wrote into his score under the work’s opening theme, linking it to demonstrations of Czech nationalism at the time. Others think Dvořák was expressing inner conflicts between his cosmopolitan symphonic style and his Czech identity.

In any case, the Seventh has an agitated streak that starts with the first phrases and runs through the finale. The urgency and drama tie the work together, sweeping up Dvořák’s trademark tunefulness and lilt into a bigger emotional sphere.

Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra captured the full scope Thursday even if they took a while to build momentum: The taut, quiet opening phrases came across haltingly, although the tempo never flagged. But once Dvořák’s brooding began to ignite, the orchestra captured the Seventh’s conflicts as well as its charm.

The stormier the music grew, the more sweep, incisiveness and impact the orchestra gave it. The ensemble has beefed up its string section for the impending tour — with 16 first violins rather than the usual 14, for instance, and 12 violas rather than the usual 10. The extra heft was palpable. The added strings also paid dividends when the Seventh really needed to sing, with melodies flowing out in smooth, full phrases. The winds likewise offered a warmth of their own during their turn in the spotlight. 

In the slow movement, Orozco-Estrada and company savored the contrasts between the lyrical tenderness of the opening, the force of the outbursts, and the sleekness of the gliding, euphonious tune that follows. Near the close, Jonathan Fischer’s quiet, well-turned oboe solos brought the music back to its most intimate, personal scale.

The third movement built almost imperceptibly from airiness and buoyancy to volatility —  and here again, the final moments brought a compelling sidelight: violas welling up in an outpouring of red-blooded spirit. The finale reconciled its storminess with a ringing, exuberant close.

The European tour will also celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, and two of the composer-conductor’s works were played on Thursday. The concert opened with Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and the orchestra embraced all of it — from the rowdiness of the first and last movements to the twilighted, tone-poem shadings of the middle section, “Lonely Town.” The gentle glow of the winds in the first stirrings of that section and the strings that followed, were especially evocative.

The Overture to West Side Story, which the orchestra played as an encore, delivered another dose of Bernstein’s vigor, explosiveness and lyricism. In the midst of it all, the strings treated “Somewhere” to their sweetest tones.

Thursday’s program also included a work that won’t go on tour: Lake of Tears, a flute concerto by the orchestra’s composer in residence, Peru native Jimmy Lopez. Lopez took his inspiration from a Peruvian legend of two young people whose love is thwarted by their elders, and their tears form a lake in the Andes. The concerto progressed from an ethereal opening laced with murmuring flute effects to a soulful, Handel-like passacaglia to a whirlwind finale of shifting rhythms and iridescent colors.

How the European gestures fit the Andean subject matter wasn’t clear. But the Finnish flutist Sami Junnonen turned in a virtuoso performance, nevertheless — rich-toned, lyrical, nimble and exotic in its use of flutter-tonguing and other effects. The orchestra enfolded Junnonen in  kaleidoscopic sound, from glistening to sepulchral. That, too, was a virtuoso display, though one that the orchestra won’t be sharing with Europe next month.

The Houston Symphony repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall. houstonsymphony.org; 713-224-7575.

One Response to “Houston Symphony preps for European tour with impassioned Dvořák”

  1. Posted Feb 20, 2018 at 12:40 am by Sami Junnonen

    I would like to warmly thank Mr. Steven Brown for the encouraging review on my solo performance with the Houston Symphony and Mtro Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

    This review is a highly valuable reference supporting my artistic career and opening doors for new work opportunities in the future.

    Sincerely Yours,
    Sami Junnonen
    Flute Soloist

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