Composed between 1888 and 1894, Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is a sensational masterwork beloved by many. Simmering, prancing, bursting and growling, the music charges on through five movements until a full chorus and two soloists bring the piece to its culminating triumph. Charles Ives’ Symphony no. 4, on which he toiled from 1910 and into the 1920s, is a four-movement American reverie of highly complex, often dark combinations of musical borrowings, styles and compositional technique. 

Andres Orozco-Estrada
© Werner Kmetitsch

In a program of both works, the Houston Symphony performed only the first movement (the three-minute Prelude: Maestoso) of the Ives’ and continued attacca into 80 minutes of Mahler. (The Symphony will be doling out the remaining Ives movements over the coming weeks, one per program.) Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, now in his fifth year as music director, explained the pairing beforehand. Both works are very modern and use different modes in alternative spaces, he said, adding that the beginning of the Ives is “a little strange”, but that it flows surprisingly well into the Mahler, which will go on for some time. “When I cook in the kitchen,” Orozco-Estrada elaborated, “I put in whatever I can find.”

Opening with an imposing six-note figure, punctuated by the throaty lower piano register and strings, the Ives Prelude moved abruptly into a murky, rhythmically unsettled haze, above which the chorus (at the back of the hall) laid an uncannily steady hymn. Just as the beauty of that strangeness began to settle on the skin, Mahler’s “Resurrection” edged in to begin a very different journey, as announced by the screens flagging the stage in case anyone missed the cue. 

The lower string section continued to prove sharp and passionate, pulling that iconic dotted melody under the winds and upper strings until the brass announced another development. The percussion section, likewise, keenly accentuated passion, fury and jubilation with remarkable attention and technique. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor filled the hall with an oaky tone and when soprano Nicole Heaston finally made her entrance, it was similarly full and glowingly vibrant. The chorus, directed by Betsy Cook Weber, followed suit; since she took the position of Chorus Director in 2014, she has increasingly honed their sound, and it doesn’t seem that Weber has reached the ceiling of what she can accomplish yet.

Other parts of the symphony frayed. Despite guest concertmaster Stephen Tavani’s best efforts – his solos were glassy, clear models of pristine playing – the upper strings sounded muddled when traversing exposed, unison phrases. Together with the winds, the performance as a whole felt like a dress rehearsal, where cues and entrances are almost, but not quite, firmed up to the level where the individual is subsumed under a single, gloriously-churning unit. It’s not enough to have one or two sections pulling together if others tend to wander.

When that opulent, far-reaching final climax erupted at the end of the fifth movement – a grandness that never fails to astonish – bright lights burst across the stage, as if someone might somehow miss the point. When Orozco-Estrada took up his post five years ago, vital and energetic, the artistic direction of the symphony seemed bright. Here, mashing Ives and Mahler together, calling it coherent while apologizing for any strangeness or obtuse lengthiness the audience might undergo, the reality is much less illuminated.