George Gershwin: An American in Paris
Leonard Bernstein (arr. William David Brohn): West Side Story Suite
Igor Stravinsky: Firebird Suite
Joshua Bell (violin)
Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada
The opening concert of the Houston Symphony's 2015-16 season was a star-studded affair in every way. On stage and in the audience, musical and philanthropic luminaries loomed large, capitalizing on every chance to see and be seen. The musical program, a trio of rhapsodic works, was delightful and colorful, leaving the true heft for next week's Mahler and Corigliano program.
Gershwin's An American in Paris must hold the record for most tempo and mood changes in a 15-minute piece, giving the Houston Symphony and Orozco-Estrada plenty of opportunities to show off their nimbleness. The presentations of raucous street music and sensuous lyrical melody were finely sculpted, while the abrupt juxtapositions and cacophonous superimpositions later in the piece were always perfectly balanced. The climax of the piece brought glorious string and brass sonorities, spiced up by the copious percussion arsenal.
While Gershwin's ingenuity resulted in a dramatically compelling, albeit highly episodic, tone poem, the same can't be said of William David Brohn's mangled suite from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Instead of taking a cue from Bernstein's own Symphonic Dances (or other similar theater-derived concertante works like Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy) and compiling the familiar tunes into a coherent whole, Brohn simply meanders through the score, without any sense of cause or effect in the music. Bernstein smartly left some of even the most familiar tunes out, while Brohn insisted on cramming in as many as possible. What saves the piece is the plethora of flashy violin effects, expertly dashed off by the always dapper Joshua Bell. Even with the fiddler's purity of tone and vertiginous technical dexterity, the piece failed to have the impact of any of Bernstein's own versions.
Stravinsky's 1919 reworking of his Firebird ballet into a concert suite comes right before his Neoclassical phase, a fact reflected in the slenderness of the suite's orchestration and duration. The Houston Symphony's superb principal players shone at every opportunity, from Jonathan Fischer's oboe in the Round Dance to Rian Craypo's bassoon in the Lullaby, and it was nice to get a sneak peak at new principal clarinetist Mark Nuccio's excellent playing. The rhythmic momentum of the Infernal Dance and perfectly balanced peroration of the finale brought the sell-out crowd to its feet. Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra rewarded the enthusiastic ovation with a crackerjack rendition of Bernstein's Candide Overture as an encore.
Marcus Karl Maroney