Houston Orchestra Back Home At Last After Lengthy Soak

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin and the Houston Symphony under music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, shown here in Jones Hall last January, were back in the orchestra’s home following repair of hurricane damage. (Photo: Anthony Rathbun)
By William Albright

HOUSTON — The arts survive everything from political upheavals, world wars, and financial crises to funding challenges and internal governance squabbles, so they certainly wouldn’t be stymied by a little rain.

Or even a lot of rain, the kind that gave Houston a real body blow this summer.

The Houston Symphony, shown in an Oct. 6 rehearsal, found a temporary home in Rice
University’s Stude Concert Hall. (Carlos Botero)

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston on Aug. 25 and stayed for days, dropping 51 inches of rain, putting one-third of the city underwater, and causing 60 deaths and many billions of dollars in damage. In Wortham Theater Center, the home of Houston Grand Opera, twelve feet of water poured into the basement and underground parking garage, ruining the electrical, mechanical, and air conditioning systems and filling the Brown Theater auditorium to the lip of the stage. The Alley Theatre – which completed a $46.5-million renovation just two years ago – got almost that much water in its downstairs theater space and dressing rooms and had to toss thousands of props.

The Houston Symphony lost much of its music library, including scores annotated by many conductors over the decades, when Tropical Storm Allison flooded Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in June 2001. (Since then the library has been moved four floors higher.) Hurricane Harvey left  twelve players’ homes destroyed or badly damaged, but the organization itself suffered much less ruination from this year’s storm than did its downtown Theater District neighbors.

Houston Grand Opera, seen rehearsing ‘La Traviata’ on Oct. 6, improvised a theater
in the George R. Brown Convention Center. (Marion Frizzell)

All of them had to cancel or adjust performances but adapted valiantly and creatively to their unprecedented situation. The opera company, which won’t be able to return to its home space until at least mid-May, cobbled together a performance venue, defiantly named Resilience Theater, in a sprawling exhibit hall in the Brown Convention Center. The Alley performed in the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance’s Quintero Theatre. And the Houston Symphony, which had to cancel the first two weeks of its 2017‒2018 season, requisitioned Stude Concert Hall in Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

The ensemble was back in Jones Hall Nov. 17 for a program that featured Charles Ives’ Third Symphony and three works inspired by Paganini’s 24th Caprice in A minor.

Houston Symphony music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada. (Anthony Rathbun)

Music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada turned the Ives symphony, dubbed “The Camp Meeting,” into a hootenanny. Before each of the three movements, a vocal quartet (soprano Anna Diemer, alto Sydney Anderson, tenor Enrique Barrera, and bass John Gallagher) sang the traditional hymns that Ives transformed with his nontraditional musical imagination, and Orozco-Estrada even led the audience in a sing-along. That little bit of interpolated music appreciation was designed to help concertgoers get a better grasp on a simultaneously simple and complex work that orchestras spurned in Ives’s time even though it had a champion in no less than Gustav Mahler. But having the quartet close the piece with one last hymn destroyed the magical effect of those faraway church bells.

Another of Orozco-Estrada’s innovations was having Ives’ evocative “shadow passages” played by musicians stationed in the auditorium, but the effect didn’t register where I was sitting. Fortunately, what did come across in Orozco-Estrada’s deft reading were the composer’s tricky rhythms and tangy orchestral hues and textures.

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin, seen here in an earlier concert with the Houston Symphony,
returned as soloist in works by Lutosławski and Rachmaninoff. (Anthony Rathbun)

Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin was the soloist in Witold Lutosławski’s Paganini Variations and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. First-prize winner in the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels at age 23, he is a proud millennial with a tuft of blond man bun perched at the back of his neck. He had all the thunderous power required to compete with the massive orchestral sonorities anchoring the colorful ten-minute Lutosławski vehicle, dating from 1979.

Kozhukhin also deployed the elegance and marksmanship demanded in the less volcanic but no less virtuosic Rachmaninoff warhorse, with its yards of lacy staccato filigree. He and Orozco-Estrada conjured up wonderful delicacy and transparency in the tempo di menuetto twelfth variation and melting expressivity for The Big Tune in the Andante cantabile eighteenth variation. For his part, Orozco-Estrada drew plenty of crispness and propulsion from the orchestra.

Paganini’s solo violin theme was played in its original form by guest concertmaster Cordula Merks, concertmaster of the San Francisco Ballet orchestra and also first assistant concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony. The jaunty tune triggered the sixteen bravura riffs that make up Boris Blacher’s fifteen-minute Orchestral Variations on a Theme of Niccolò Paganini (1974), which the Houston Symphony also performed in 2002 under Carlos Miguel Prieto. This go-round, the always-exuberant Orozco-Estrada unleashed swivel-hipped body English to shape the boozy, slithery lines of Blacher’s witty, imaginatively orchestrated, occasionally jazz-inflected work.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles TimesChristian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.