A concerto soloist should always outshine the orchstra, and it’s the orchestra’s job to make sure that happens. In his Houston Symphony debut, Behzod Abduraimov held court with Beethoven’s resplendent “Emperor” Concerto proclaiming pluck and intuition. The orchestra caught this feeling, but sounded careless in the details. With Strauss’ Don Juan and Liszt’s Les Préludes in the second half, though, the Houston Symphony proved its sentimental panache could cover its technical crimes.

Since its Leipzig première in 1811, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major has been a favorite of audiences, musicians and scholars alike. Grand and elegant, there’s little question as to why it has stood the test of time. It captures the spectrum of human conditions, and the majesty of the Adagio un poco mosso, especially, will never go out of fashion.

Abduraimov began the concerto boldly, declarative and unhesitatingly sweeping across the keyboard, showing that he had intimately come to his own understanding of the work. As assertive his fortes, the pianos were delicate. He knows how to pause, how to lift, and how to lean into the instrument. In the second movement, he seemed to press himself into each lyric. Phrases turned out like crystalized pastoral scenes, floating, restful, before the Rondo. The transition from the second to the third movement can be hard to streamline, moving from such a quiet scene into something altogether different in the space of a few chords. Abduraimov treated it like he was quietly inviting the audience into the next room of a grand palace.

As the backdrop to Abduraimov’s impeccable performance, the orchestra stumbled at some vital moments. They were a breath behind the dramatic cut-off to the first movement and came apart in the middle of the second movement when the piano part acts, for once, as an accompaniment to the symphony in soft arpeggio figures. Solo entrances lacked clarity too, and the playing as a whole sank a little flat tonally by the end.

But the performance still registered as powerful, speaking to the talents of the conductor James Gaffigan. As a conductor, Gaffigan showed a different side of the energy and fluidity that Houston Symphony’s artistic director and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada has impressed me with time and again. Like Orozco-Estrada, he moves as though the music flows through him. He braced his legs in a wide stance for the opening announcements in the Strauss and swept his toes in circles during hushed interludes. Like Abduraimov, Gaffigan knows how to do a dramatic pause without it being theatrically contrived, and he knows how to transition from placid to bustling passions in a way that spins feeling sensationally. 

While it got off to a halting start, Houston Symphony’s knack for color and spirit came out most vibrantly in Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes, painting feeling with sound. The idea that music has a predetermined narrative is an archetype Romantic gesture that Liszt coined. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition comes quickly to mind, as well as other romantics like Franck and Scriabin who followed Liszt’s example. It’s a mode designed for expression, and the Houston Symphony got it spot on. The stormy arpeggios in the violins, the dark foundation in the lower strings, the brazen declarations in the brass – it was all there, and it was all something that held a fearlessness in it. This concert may not have showcased the orchestra’s clean lines and technical agility, but it did strike a chord, so to speak, and that’s not anything to shrug at.