López’s symphonic ode to NASA dazzles but doesn’t always fly

Sun Dec 08, 2019 at 2:20 pm
By Steven Brown
The Houston Symphony presented the world premiere of composer Jimmy López’s Symphony No. 2, “Ad Astra,” this weekend. Photo: Houston Symphony.

Jimmy López Bellido will complete his three years as the Houston Symphony’s composer-in-residence in the springtime, and this weekend’s concerts brought one of his stint’s last milestones: the world premiere of López’s Symphony No. 2, Ad Astra, first performed Thursday and repeated Saturday in Jones Hall.

Aiming to link the work to the orchestra’s hometown, López looked to space exploration, long connected to Houston by the city’s Johnson Space Center. The result is a symphony full of arresting moments. But as its five musical stories unfold, Ad Astra fails to establish an overall musical arc.

The symphony’s subtitle is the last half of a Latin phrase meaning “through hardship to the stars” — a message the Voyager spacecraft carried aloft in Morse code on a phonograph record. That same code, tapped out by the vibraphone to open the symphony, becomes a rhythmic motif that runs through the entire work.

López — probably best-known for his 2015 opera, Bel Canto — devotes each of the symphony’s first four movements to a piece of the space program’s history.

The opening, “Voyager,” recalls the probes launched in the 1970s. “Apollo” looks back at the missions that took mankind to the moon, and “Hubble” evokes the telescope that sent back spectacular images of far-flung celestial bodies. “Challenger” recalls the 1986 explosion that killed a space shuttle crew, including a schoolteacher.

The finale, “Revelation,” offers a fantasy of the future: A distant civilization, after receiving and decoding the Morse code message, responds — via offstage trumpets, at first — with a message of friendship.

As the Houston Symphony has shown through other López works, unleashing the orchestra’s colors and searching for new ones is one of the Peru native’s calling cards. His quest continues in Ad Astra. Thanks to the sheer vividness of its timbres and textures, the work’s 45 minutes never drag, and the orchestra — led by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada — played it Saturday with commitment, vividness and power.

Though the vibraphone opens “Voyager” quietly, a rush of strings brings the symphony’s first burst of energy, and the rest of the orchestra’s full force soon comes to bear. In “Apollo,” pulsating trombones set the stage, then the ethereal glass harmonica conjures up the moon’s stillness; later in the movement, the celesta, vibraphone and other gleaming parts of the orchestra join the glass harmonica’s lunar soundscape.

As “Hubble” begins, the grinding sounds of the wind machine and other percussion — even sheets of paper that one player rubs together — harken back to the technical troubles that first dogged the space telescope. But staccato trumpets help rouse the orchestra’s energy, suggesting that the telescope’s fix is at hand. The strings intone a quiet theme that gradually wends upwards, perhaps representing the engineers’ prayer of thanks.

“Challenger” brings an air of grandeur and celebration, from a stately French horn theme to a more vigorous episode launched by the cellos. But a sonic explosion — including shrieking horns — describes the catastrophe, and the movement ends with drum beats that die away like a fading heartbeat.

“Revelation” begins in darkness — in the depths of the orchestra’s double basses and cellos. As the rest of the orchestra returns to action, the music gradually stirs again, and offstage trumpets deliver the Morse code rhythm — the response from another world. Violin trills rouse the orchestra’s excitement, and the unseen trumpets come onstage to chime in with a groundswell of orchestral power.

However quiet the music grows, those orchestral bursts are never far away. Though López may have an array of meanings in mind for them — suggestions of rockets’ power, human heroism or celestial majesty — the sonic muscle-flexing gradually loses its impact.

And the symphony turns too often to themes that gradually work their way upward, like the strings’ in “Hubble” or the first several minutes of “Revelation.” Such passages may signify human resoluteness, the ascent of a flight, or other worthwhile meanings, but the musical device grows over-familiar.

In any case, Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra played it all to the hilt. They brought out the vitality of the flights of energy, the transparency of the celestial tone-painting — like the passages for glass harmonica — as well as the power of the climaxes and the clangor of the Challenger explosion. And at the start of “Revelation,” the orchestra’s sepulchral tone helped make the subsequent blaze of intergalactic trumpets all the more dramatic. 

After intermission, Orozco-Estrada and the group let the first phrases of Brahms’ Violin Concerto float out with a smoothness and serenity that took the concert into an entirely different space. If there was any danger the concerto might be eclipsed by the sheer theatricality of López’s symphony, violinist Gil Shaham took care of that.

Shaham evidently needed a little time to settle in; though he plunged into the first flourish with vigor, his tone and intonation weren’t quite in focus for a bit. But by the next time the solo part’s agitation bubbled up, Shaham had gotten his grip, and he gave the rest of this concerto a fire, urgency and exuberance it rarely displays.

Yes, his deftness let lyrical spots emerge gracefully. But by and large, Shaham savored the first movement’s drama, sweeping dynamically through some of its outbursts and stretching out the walloping climaxes of others. He brought passion and restlessness to the slow movement’s ruminations, and his swaggering rhythms and gutsy tone let the finale exude rugged Brahmsian spirit.

Meanwhile, Orozco-Estrada led the orchestra not only to add its own heft and impact to Shaham’s, but to bring coziness and poise to Brahms’ lyrical side. In the slow movement, principal oboist Jonathan Fischer and the rest of the winds sang out with the spaciousness and blend of a rich-voiced choir, complementing Shaham’s urgency.

After the finale’s flamboyance, Shaham gave airiness and grace the last word, bringing on guest concertmaster Alexander Velinzon to join him in a gavotte by Jean-Marie Leclair. But even here, Shaham injected a dash of red-blooded richness amid the elegance.

The Houston Symphony and Houston Symphony Chorus will perform Handel’s Messiah at Jones Hall Dec. 20-22. houstonsymphony.org; 713-224-7575.

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