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A Triptych of Youthful Works

Jones Hall
09/23/2016 -  & September 24, 25, 2016
Victor Agudelo: El Sombrerón
Benjamin Krause: Pathways
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor)

V. Agudelo

Enough commendation cannot be given to the Houston Symphony and its generous board members in instituting a program to present new works by emerging composers on the orchestra’s subscription series. The inaugural concert included two attractive works, one by Colombian composer Victor Agudelo, connecting the program to Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s home country, and one by Benjamin Krause, who studied at Houston’s Rice University for five years.

Agudelo’s tone poem El Sombrerón opened the concert. The composer spoke with Orozco-Estrada onstage, explaining that he was asked to write a “spooky” work and stating that he hoped the audience would feel “goose bumps” at some point. Borrowing musical tropes from Mussorgsky’s Bald Mountain and Franck’s Accursed Hunstman, and employing a motivic economy (and timpani glissandi) that brought to mind Bartók, the work’s attempt at spookiness was a bit let down by its predictability and murky orchestration, especially in the middle registers. The ending, where the audience was asked to whistle a short melody in canon as the work faded out, was an effective surprise.

B. Krause

Pathways, Krause’s offering, was an abstract study of musical energy. Attractive sonorities of tuned percussion and glittering woodwinds set the piece in motion, after which the composer craftily reconstituted orders of events to create a compelling dramatic arc. Here, shades of Honegger and—from the American wind ensemble world—Vincent Persichetti and Frank Ticheli peeked through as clear influences. Krause’s excellent control of dissipating energy for the serene ending of the work was most impressive.

In both works, Orozco-Estrada and the HSO musicians showed extreme dedication and enthusiasm. In Krause’s intricate, interlocking gestures, trade-offs were precise and seamless. Agudelo’s piccolo solos and stratospheric string writing were also highlights.

After intermission, Orozco-Estrada led a stunning performance of the also “young” Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. It took a few bars for intonation to settle in the slow introduction, but one the “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” melody appeared complete, musicians and conductor became one. Throughout the work, Orozco-Estrada’s nuanced variegations of tempo and dynamics were met with precise responses from all sections. Solos from principal woodwinds, horn and trumpet were all beautifully played.

Most importantly, there was a clear structural vision towards the finale’s Durchbruch, meaning that a slight holding back at the first movement’s climax left room to grow. The exaggerated lilt in the second movement and control in the third—never have I heard the double bass and bassoon engage in such an eery opening canon—created a fascinating contrast. For the Mahler purists and horn enthusiasts, ignoring the composer’s “Alle Hornisten stehen auf...” (“All horn players stand”) directive in the final moments might be a cardinal sin; the intensity and impact of the playing were there, even if the theatrics weren’t.

In all, this was much more finessed and satisfying than the Fifth given last season. In Orozco-Estrada, Houston has managed to find a compelling Mahler conductor, and now an advocate of young and local composers to boot. Bravo!

Marcus Karl Maroney



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