Latino Conductor Bows In Houston With Heroic Flair

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra as he begins his tenure as music director.  (Concert photos courtesy of Houston Symphonyu)
Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted the Houston Symphony, beginning his tenure as music director.
(Concert photos courtesy of Houston Symphony)
By William Albright

HOUSTON – There is something nicely harmonious when an American orchestra’s music director reflects or complements the locale’s demographics. Thus, Scandinavian-rich Minnesota tapped Finn Osmo Vänskä to head the Minnesota Orchestra. Similarly, the Los Angeles area, which has far and away the largest Hispanic population of any American city, recruited Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel for the L.A. Philharmonic.

In Texas’ Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, the Hispanic population of about 1.75 million (41 percent of the total) trails only Los Angeles County’s 4.75 million. And now, the Houston Symphony’s fifteenth music director, Colombian-born Andrés Orozco-Estrada, is its first from Latin America. He began his tenure this month with a varied series of concerts.

Orozco-Estrada is the orchestra's first Latin American music director.
Orozco-Estrada is the orchestra’s first Latin American music director.

Many notable conductors have held the post of music director in the Houston ensemble’s 101-year history: Ferenc Fricsay, Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, André Previn, Christoph Eschenbach. At age 35, Orozco-Estrada, is not yet so familiar a name, but he has compiled a strong résumé. Trained in his native Medellín as a violinist at a school devoted to classical music, he was just fifteen when he began conducting a youth orchestra; at nineteen, he entered the Vienna Music Academy. Since 2009, he has been music director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna and has worked with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Orozco-Estrada has begun his Houston Symphony directorship by celebrating his Latin American heritage while also hinting at the kind of outreach and audience-building the orchestra doubtless has in mind. The free “¡Bienvenidos, Andrés!” concert Sept. 12 at Miller Outdoor Theatre drew some 8,000 loudly appreciative Houstonians to a program that featured buoyant works by fellow Colombianos Lucho Bermúdez and José Rozo Contreras, Mexico’s José Pablo Moncayo, and Berkeley-born Houston Symphony composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank.

Rounding out the program were Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso, Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, and Gershwin’ Rhapsody in Blue performed with Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero. A pair of dancers from Houston’s Colombian Folkloric Ballet and fireworks added to the festivities.

At a November concert at Rice University, Orozco-Estrada will provide a running Spanish-language commentary for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And the orchestra will target Houston’s diverse youth demographic with online and social media interaction and discussion in multiple languages.

Composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s ‘Karnavalingo’ received its premiere.

Orozco-Estrada led his first subscription concert as music director Sept. 19 in Jones Hall –with a program featuring the world premiere of Frank’s Karnavalingo (a commission), Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with André Watts, and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, the showpiece that also anchored Sergiu Comissiona’s arrival as music director in Houston in 1979.

Sporting a lapel-less frock coat rather than tails, the lithe and diminutive Orozco-Estrada displayed an exuberant and demonstrative podium style.  He drew delicacy and precision as well as hall-filling richness from the orchestra, which happened to be the first Frank heard live as a freshman Rice University music major in 1990.

Karnavalingo is the first of several of her works the orchestra will play over three seasons (she wrote a viola concerto for the ensemble in 2007). Inspired by the carnavalito, a dance form in her mother’s native Peru, the new piece is driven by syncopated rhythms crisped with fanfare-like trumpet interjections and a percussion battery reinforced by a piano and — count ’em — three marimbas. The buoyant 10-minute amuse-bouche ends wittily with an unexpected whisper.

André Watts performing Rach 2 with the Houston Symphony.
André Watts performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

For the Rachmaninoff concerto, Orozco-Estrada adopted very broad tempos that flirted with sluggishness. There was much swooning long before the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” theme oozed into the mix in the last movement. But Watts played with the necessary élan and refinement, and the second movement ended with haunting tenderness from all concerned.

Orozco-Estrada reveled in Ein Heldenleben’s mighty sonorities and melting lyricism. What conductor wouldn’t? The hero’s grand theme had plenty of sweep, the battlefield section brimmed with high-decibel vim, and concertmaster Frank Huang played the mercurial, alternately sprightly and dreamy violin solos most sweetly.

In all, the program gave ample hints as to what Houston music lovers can expect in coming seasons.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.