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A Winter's Tale

Jones Hall
01/22/2016 -  & January 23*, 24, 2016
Dmitri Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Op. 96 – Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in D Major, "For the Left Hand"

Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor)

K. Gerstein (© Marco Borggreve)

Colorful and powerful twentieth-century mainstays filled the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format of the Houston Symphony's first concert of 2016. While much amazing playing filled Jones Hall, the star of the show was Kirill Gerstein, always a strong and satisfying presence, but here giving a superlative performance of a unique masterpiece.

Ravel's brief but potent Left Hand Concerto brought a performance that complemented Gerstein's 2010 appearance playing the same composer's G Major Concerto. Both perfectly balanced impeccable technique with thoughtful, unified musical interpretations. The Left Hand Concerto'sharmonies and colors are as pungent as anything Shostakovich, whose works flanked Ravel's, penned, but Gerstein presented them unapologetically to the audience, playing up the work's ingeniously balanced harmonic tension and relaxtion. The keyboard was made more vivid than ever, banishing the idea that all the gorgeously-spun trills, impeccably-voiced chords and arpeggiated flourishes, martial octave descents, and Scotch snap rhythms were coming from five fingers instead of ten. Orozco-Estrada paced the orchestra introduction well, the contrabassoon setting the otherworldly stage with impressive projection and intonation. Gerstein augmented the concerto with one of his signature encores, Felix Blumenthal's Etude for the Left Hand, Op. 36, deliciously rendered.

After intermission, Orozco-Estrada spoke to the audience before beginning Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. Despite his charms, his words felt rambling and offered scant valuable information. The talk was clearly aimed at audience members unfamiliar with the work, and the goal should have been clarity and illumination. If pointing up the musical ciphers in the third movement, it might be helpful to sing or have musicians play the simple motives, allowing even first-time listeners to follow their appearances. Alas, as the symphony unfolded, the performance gave off the same vibe; there was much impressive playing to enjoy, but the interpretation as a whole didn't convince.

The maestro essentially apologized before foisting the brooding first movement on the Houston crowd and, while it is indeed intense and lengthy (although not much more so than the Ravel concerto), it is also quite cinematic, colorful, and engaging. I can't imagine such an appeal for patience (and even "suffering") from another major orchestra's podium before this work, and it was hard to stop thinking about Orozco-Estrada's opinion of the movement and focus on the music itself. I've never heard the movement sound as diffuse as it did here.

The no-holds-barred approach to the brief second movement worked best, but the balancing act of charm and sardonicism in the third movement's off-kilter waltz failed to come across. In the finale, woodwinds and strings consistently impressed in their virtuosic solo and section passagework, but brass upbeats continuously threatened to fall out of sync. The evening started with Shostakovich's popular Festive Overture, which was interpretively similar to the Tenth Symphony's scherzo: quick and exciting, if lacking refinement.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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