By William Albright
HOUSTON – Jimmy López wasn’t in Houston when Hurricane Harvey floodwaters devastated the downtown Theater District in August 2017. He was probably at home in California or overseeing a performance of one of his works somewhere. But the storm affected him anyway. It forced the postponement of the scheduled world premiere of his violin concerto Aurora with the Houston Symphony.
That commission made its belated debut May 3 in Jones Hall, conducted by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada and featuring its dedicatee, violinist Leticia Moreno. (It also marked the debut of the orchestra’s new concertmaster, Yoonshin Song, who had held that post at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 2012.)
López was born in Peru, which, like Orozco-Estrada’s native Colombia, straddles the Equator. Growing up, he had never seen the aurora borealis (northern lights) or its southern equivalent, the aurora australis. But he was struck by the shimmering lights during the seven years he spent in Helsinki earning a master of music degree at the Sibelius Academy. Aurora pays sonic homage to those natural wonders and similar “magnetic anomalies” on other planets.
The inaugural performances of the 40-minute work, his first collaboration with the Houston Symphony as its 2019‒20 composer-in-residence, included a visual element. Colored lights played softly on the back wall of the stage, the effect ranging from picturesque to rather Lava Lamp-like. In 2010, the Houston Symphony performed Gustav Holst’s The Planets with a commissioned film that included dramatic footage from the Cassini spacecraft, the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Aurora lightshow didn’t produce the same frisson, but the intentions were similar.
The opening movement, “Equatorialis: Quasi-cadenza,” made frequent use of call-and-response. Moreno would make a musical gesture, frequently jagged or playful, and members of the orchestra, often explosively en masse, would echo it in a dramatic back and forth. Three other violinists, stationed in the balconies, also got into the act. The entire concerto revels in what composer and music critic Virgil Thomson called the “wow effect.” As in most of the work, the violin part here is a driving, slashing moto perpetuo that had the Spanish violinist, sheathed in a shiny silver gown, fiercely scrubbing away at her 1762 Nicolò Gagliano.
Though occasionally lashed by fortissimo outbursts, the “Borealis” movement creates a more peaceful, ruminative mood through high violin lines and suspended orchestral sonorities. The percussion battery includes xylophones – sometimes tinkling icily, sometimes keening eerily thanks to bars stroked by a violin bow.
The final “Australis” movement upped the work’s substantial tension quotient with crisp, biting, complex rhythms and ended like the concerto began, with a rapt cadenza that López added to his score in the interim between its originally scheduled premiere and the May performances. The audience heartily applauded Moreno, Orozco-Estrada, and López, whose Second Symphony will be premiered here in December.
The program closed with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It began unpromisingly, the quickish first movement lacking grandeur and weight and the key tune phrased with sing-song superficiality. But Orozco-Estrada gave the Marcia funebre sufficient gravitas while also drawing out its songful fluidity. The Scherzo and Trio were properly sprightly and springy, and the Finale enjoyed an invigorating bounce and lightness of touch.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.