HOUSTON — The opening concert in a Houston Symphony Classical Series is always a special event. But the Sept. 17 performance, which launched the 2021–2022 lineup, was as much a pep rally as a first night.
For one thing, it was the first time music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada had set foot on the Jones Hall podium in 19 COVID-19-plagued months (pandemic travel restrictions kept him out of town). Also, with everybody in the orchestra and in the hall masked, it allowed more people to attend a concert in person (limited, socially distanced seating had been enforced previously).
For his part, Orozco-Estrada — who is ending his eight years as music director this season, to be succeeded by Bratislava-born Juraj Valčuha — stoked the celebratory mood by permitting and even encouraging audience members to applaud between movements if they liked what they heard. His listeners responded with usually frowned-upon mini-ovations and a standing ovation at the end of the concert, when the conductor animatedly called for even more applause for the orchestra.
Patrons had much to approve of in a stylish rendition of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and a blazing account of his Fifth Symphony.
The Triple featured Yoonshin Song, the Houston Symphony’s concertmaster since 2019, Brinton Averil Smith, appointed principal cellist in 2005, and pianist Yefim Bronfman, a frequent Houston Symphony headliner. With Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra lending supple and cushiony support for the soloists, Bronfman supplied rhythmic firmness and plenty of easy power when needed (anybody who has recorded all of the Bartók and Prokofiev concertos isn’t a slouch in the decibels department), but he also contributed fluid passagework and many touches of delicacy. Song and Smith specialized in suave phrasing and sweetness of tone even in the most high-lying pages or agitated, bravura passages.
Like arts organizations in general, the Houston Symphony was hard-hit by the COVID-19 virus. The 2019–2020 season was canceled with more than two months of performances left on the schedule, and 21 full- or part-time employees were laid off, cutting the staff to 62 from 83. But the organization responded strongly to continue serving both Houston and the orchestra’s members. There were weekly performances for socially distanced audiences beginning in May 2020. In May and June 2020, live-streaming began for a Living Room Series of concerts by individual musicians with members of their family and people they were quarantining with. Weekly Live from Jones Hall programs started in July 2020. And the 2020–2021 season opened as scheduled in September 2020 with social distancing both onstage and in the audience.
The players’ work on behalf of Beethoven on this evening demonstrated that, thanks to continued opportunities to perform and maintain chops despite the pandemic, the ensemble suffered no losses in responsiveness, precision, or sonority at all dynamic levels. The Fifth Symphony blasted out of the blocks with a febrile first movement founded on tension and propulsion; the haunting oboe interjection was an oasis of calm amid the hurly-burly. The second movement unfolded genially, however, with the more subdued moments lovingly shaped, and Orozco-Estrada again gave the orchestra its head to close the tumultuous work with tremendous sweep and punch.
A Broadway-themed pops concert and a program of arias and show tunes featuring Renée Fleming preceded the season-starter. The only pall cast on the opening concert was the cancellation of a new work commissioned by the orchestra. Colorado-based, University of Houston-trained composer Kyle Rivera (born 1996) fashioned an orchestral arrangement of Henry: A Ballad, a piece originally for voice and piano by Afro-European composer and violinist George Bridgetower (1778–1860), the first dedicatee of what is now known as Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Violin Sonata. Because the orchestra wasn’t able to rehearse the work on concert day, the premiere was canceled and will now be given in the spring.