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Three Shades of D

Jones Hall
01/30/2016 -  and Jan. 31*
Samuel Barber: Overture to the School for Scandal, Op. 5
Robert Schumann: Violin Concerto in D Minor
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor)

P. Kopatchinskaja (© Marco Borggreve)

A glittering performance of Barber's School for Scandal overture kicked off a brilliant concerto from the Houston Symphony that was memorable from downbeat to double bar. Barber's overture makes frequent harmonic and tempo detours in its standard structural frame, and Orozco-Estrada galvanized his players into an organic, powerful whole. Tutti sections featured excellent blend and balance, the orchestra coalescing on top of sturdy low brass. The oboe and English horn statements of the lyrical second theme were delightfully tangy, and the in-your-face D Major ending, tinged with the excitingly dissonant E-flat, was allowed to be appropriately bombastic.

"Beautiful ugliness" was something that Patricia Kopatchinskaja pointed out in Schumann's autumnal Violin Concerto in a video before her performance. I imagine that anyone will remember their first experience with Kopatchinskaja's artistry. Eschewing shoes, playing with music on the stand, and visibly and occasionally audibly singing and interacting with the orchestra during their tuttis, this is idiosyncratic music-making that could turn distracting in the wrong hands. Not so with Kopatchinskaja's; her quirky nature convinced.

The violin's initial entry in the Schumann Concerto seems a few measures too early. The soloist must let us know that this is intentional and motivically derived, something that Kopatchinskaja's did perfectly, pointing out the motive in the orchestral introduction. Her tone is almost viola-like–throaty and vocal–and her technique knows no bounds. She is not afraid of bow noise or occasionally slighting intonation for musical effect, but when purity is called for, as in Schumann's prayer-like central Langsam, her playing becomes meditatively still and hushed, echoed by string principals in the orchestra. The finale's polonaise rhythms were pointed up by both soloist and orchestra, the horns in particularly fine form towards the work's end.

The biggest surprise of the evening was Kopatchinskaja's encore. While most would give us Paganini or Kreisler, her unique performance continued, and she instead honored Hungarian composer György Kurtág's ninetieth birthday with samples from his Signs, Games, and Messages and Kafka-Fragmente. The latter were especially delightful and quirky, Kopatchinskaja performing both the soprano and violin role in shadowy, off-kilter performances that delighted the audience, no apologies needed.

After intermission, Orozco-Estrada gave the finest performance of his tenure yet: a stunningly athletic Brahms Second Symphony. The generally quick tempos and robust interpretation brought to mind James Levine's Chicago recording, but Orozco-Estrada imbued the reading with unique touches as well. The slight lift every third beat at the opening of the work emphasized the first movement's dance-like qualities. The especially forthright development section was thrilling, while glowing horn and string playing featured in a wonderfully controlled denouement.

The contrast between the dark-hued second and sprightly third movements was exaggerated. In the former, bassoons, trombones, and tuba resonated at the depths of the orchestra, and horns and upper woodwinds were perfectly unified in their fugal response. The third movement's Presto ma non assai episodes were quite zippy, giving the music a hint of Tchaikovskian ballet music. This was followed by a no-holds-barred finale that summed up the entire concert's atmosphere of joyous celebration of music-making. The orchestra played like a small chamber group in terms of rhythmic acuity, while projecting almost Bruckner-like glory in the movement's louder passages. The final moments of the whole evening–capping off a triptych of D major endings–were exhilarating.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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