Orozco-Estrada leads Houston Symphony in a journey from Ives to Rachmaninoff

Sat Nov 18, 2017 at 1:43 pm
By Steven Brown

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall Friday night. Photo: Julie Soefer

The Houston Symphony jumped from the divine to the diabolical Friday night.

The evening’s concert at Jones Hall began with Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” based on church hymns Ives knew from childhood. After intermission, the orchestra turned to the dark side with three works spotlighting Niccolo Paganini, the violinist who let superstitious folk imagine that his virtuosity got a helping hand from the devil.

You might think it would be redundant to play three sets of variations based on the same tune. Friday’s troika—Witold Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Boris Blacher’s Orchestral Variations on a Theme of Niccolo Paganini — share not only a tune, but a sardonic streak that harks back to the legendary link between fiddler and devil.

But music director Andres Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra–along with pianist Denis Kozhukhin in Rachmaninoff and Blacher–showed that each work has a flavor all its own.

Denis Kozhukhin. Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Lutoslawski’s nine-minute romp came across as taut, wry and flashy. Kozhukhin played with vigor and incisiveness; the orchestra added power and scintillating colors. Kozhukhin doesn’t command as hefty a sound as, say, Kirill Gerstein and the orchestra nearly drowned him out at times.

To be fair, that may have been partly Lutoslawski’s doing. One rowdy passage had the piano and much of the enormous orchestra simultaneously clattering along in the treble range: There was probably no way for the keyboard to cut through.

Rachmaninoff didn’t make that kind of mistake. Even though his Rhapsody is more sonorous–with a lush, lyrical vein that sets it apart from Lutoslawski and Blacher–he wove together the piano and orchestra most adroitly. So, even though Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra brought the Rhapsody a wealth of rich, red-blooded tone, the piano still cut through.

Kozhukhin again swept nimbly and eagerly through the acrobatics. Other pianists have savored Rachmaninoff’s lyricism with more sweetness and elegance. But in the famous 18th variation, Kozhukhin’s momentum helped the music’s passion build quickly. And the orchestra’s richness carried it to the climax. The orchestra also brought the Rhapsody gusto and bite, though in a few of the most virtuosic spots the woodwinds didn’t have every strand in focus.

A German who grew up partly in China, Blacher showed off his cosmopolitan credentials by adding a dose of American blues into the climax of his Orchestral Variations showpiece. The Houston Symphony players cut loose there–especially principal clarinetist Mark Nuccio, who obviously got in touch with his inner Benny Goodman. On the way to that point, the orchestra played this sonic kaleidoscope to the hilt, from the first variation’s woodwind wisps to the juggernaut power that came later. Woodwinds and brasses chattered back and forth at top speed; a whirlwind from the strings was all the more electrifying because it boasted precision as well as speed. The big finish packed a wallop.

The tone was altogether cozier when Ives’ symphony gave us that old-time religion.

Before the players came onstage, Orozco-Estrada set the scene with a little audience participation. He brought on a vocal quartet to sing the hymn that underlies the first movement:O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

After the quartet repeated it, the words flashed onto a video screen, and it was the audience’s turn to sing. The results may have been approximate, but that if anything harmonized with the symphony to come–since Ives depicted enthusiasm, not precision, when his music evoked the bands and choirs of his youth. Before each movement of the symphony, the quartet sang some of the hymns it drew on, such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Just As I Am.”

Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra eased into the symphony, lending it a warmth and flow that helped create a once-upon-a-time atmosphere. But as bits of hymns bubbled up, the players gave them energy and spirit. Waves of fervor came and went. Meanwhile, the lines that suggest wayward voices going against the flow floated out from solo players dispersed through the hall.

The second movement, “Children’s Day” was downright bouncy at times, especially when the woodwinds launched into their tunes. Then the finale, “Communion,” gradually quieted. The orchestra played with delicacy and transparency as bits of hymns floated out amid a sort of sonic mist. And the symphony faded out to the sound of distant bells.

It was a misjudged move by the conductor to have the vocal quartet reappear to reprise one of the hymns–first singing, then humming–as the stage lights dimmed. Ives had already painted that picture and that unnecessary addition proved an anticlimax to Ives’ own effective coda.

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

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