Bronfman provides a season highlight in Houston Symphony’s 20th-century program

Fri May 12, 2017 at 3:12 pm
By Lawrence Wheeler

Yefim Bronfman performed Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Houston Symphony Thursday night at Jones Hall.

For his final subscription concert of the year, Andrés Orozco-Estrada chose a trio of twentieth-century works, each marked by stylistic differences but unified by revolutionary ideas.

Thursday evening’s concert at Jones Hall began with The Unanswered Question by American composer Charles Ives. Written in 1908, it was not performed until 1946. A solo trumpet musically asks “the perennial question of existence”; offstage muted strings represent “the silences of the Druids – who know, see and hear nothing,” and four flutes attempt to give “the invisible answer.” While the question remains the same through seven iterations, the flutes’ answers become increasingly agitated and frustrated, ultimately mocking the question itself.

Ives combines  tonal chord progressions in the strings with an atonal question and atonal answers. This combination is remarkable given that 1908 is the date of composition.

Orozco-Estrada conducted his own theatrical version facing the audience, with an empty stage behind him. The hall was dark except for a spotlight on the conductor, creating a novel effect.

Unusually, this performance placed the strings offstage, which heightened the sense of timelessness. Even more unusually, Orozco-Estrada rearranged the solo trumpet part for  several players, which was heard through opened doors around the hall.  

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra to perform Bela Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 2, among the most difficult in the genre. Completed in 1931, Bartók utilizes polytonality (two unrelated keys used simultaneously) and retrograde inversion (themes repeated upside-down and backwards). The concerto follows a grand arch form, with similar themes in the first and third movements, and a second movement that is itself symmetrical.

Bronfman strikes an imposing figure, and this concerto seemingly requires all that physical strength just to get through it. With all the requisite endurance, Bronfman brought abundant technical prowess and intelligent structural clarity to the dense contrapuntal score.

A seasoned Bartok pianist, Bronfman executed the running chords throughout the finger-crushing first movement in amazing fashion. This was contrasted with his poignant expression in the second movement, the middle section of which boasted rapid-fire repeated piano notes and brilliant wind playing. The final movement was a joyous Hungarian dance, again performed by Bronfman with no technical limitations. With several piano soloists this season, Bronfman was a standout. 

Aided by Bronfman’s innate chamber music sensibilities, Orozco-Estrada maintained cohesion throughout the rhythmically complex dialogue between piano and orchestra. Timpanist Ronald Holdman did excellent work with the prominent part.

For an encore, Bronfman performed Robert Schumann’s Arabeske. It was a palette-cleansing change after the Bartók, and showed his considerable capacity for delicacy and charm.

Following intermission Jones Hall was transformed with special lighting, balloons, and space around the orchestra to accommodate a semi-staged accompaniment to Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet. Choreographers Gabriel Galindez Cruz and Emilio Díaz Abregú worked with young dancers and puppeteers from Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School Dance Ensemble and Crespo Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School Dance Department.

Led by a very talented young man wearing a tin-foil hat, the young performers showed great spirit during their time in the spotlight. The puppeteers behind the orchestra were particularly effective in their pantomimes.

With Petrushka, Stravinsky made revolutionary use of the orchestra, writing a colorful score consisting of four parts with eleven dances. The Houston Symphony was top-notch, and virtually every instrument and section made excellent contributions to the performance. While many are worth mentioning, pianist Scott Holshouser was outstanding with the virtuosic solo piano parts, and first trumpet Mark Hughes played the extensive and demanding trumpet solos with style and precision.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

3 Responses to “Bronfman provides a season highlight in Houston Symphony’s 20th-century program”

  1. Posted May 13, 2017 at 8:07 pm by Michael Barela

    Being a composer, I have certain works I always return to for inspiration. Bartok’s Piano Concerto #2 is one of them. When I heard The Houston Symphony was going to perform this beast, with Bronfman at the piano, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

    Well I was not disappointed. His performance was fabulous. Our HSO tackled this monster, but I’m sure the performance will be tighter by Sunday, so if you get a chance, don’t miss it my friends. Why? Because unless you fly in to NYC or Berlin, you’ll be hard pressed to hear it live anytime soon. Few pianists will even attempt it, much less play it well. So here’s your chance.

    I’m so very proud of Maestro Orozco-Estrada! The Rach 3 in January and now this? What’s next Maestro… Ginastera’s Piano Concerto #1?… which incidentally “quotes” the final movement of Bartok’s #2 Piano Concerto. Check it out. It’s quite obvious. But as Igor said, whose Petrushka is also on the menu w/ HSO’s Bartok this Saturday and Sunday, “Lesser artists borrow, great artist’s steal.” Of course, I personally love that quote.

    One last thing… I walked up to Bronfman in the lobby, thanked him for the great performance. Very few people seemed to know who he was! Anyway… He signed my program! What a night to remember… Nice review Mr Wheeler. I was searching for the name of Bronfman’s wistful encore and found you!

    Thanks again! Michael Barela

  2. Posted May 14, 2017 at 6:26 pm by George John

    I attended Sunday. I noticed some slight synchronization problems between the orchestra and piano. Maestro Orozco-Estrada’s beat could not have been more clear, so I think the issue was due to the extraordinarily difficult piano part, one where few dare to tread live. Overall, it was a brilliant performance.

    Mark Nuccio continues to impress. The New York Philharmonic’s loss was very much our gain.

    What an amazingly great orchestra. It will be interesting to see whom they pick for concertmaster. I still give the edge to Camilla Krøll. Ying Fu did a good job today, but Ms. Krøll strikes me as better of the two. Of course, the key is who works better with our extraordinarily talented musicians. That’s hard to know sitting in the audience.

    But, that extraordinary Shostakovich Fifth last Sunday will be hard to forget. I have never been so deeply moved by that work.

  3. Posted May 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm by Shane

    Although Andrés Orozco-Estrada presentation of “The Unanswered Question” was next-level as was Bronfman’s performance. However, I was disappointed with the distracting and amateurish “choreography” during Petrushka. If I wanted to see a third grade talent show, then I would just go to a third grade talent show.

    I expect professional performances from the Houston Symphony and unfortunately, I only saw two out of three this past weekend.

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