When a hurricane floods your symphony hall, and you have to scrap and replace programs according to new venues and limited rehearsal time – all with an aim to soothe a city in distress – what do you play? In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Symphony chose Rimsky-Korsakov, Piazzolla and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to replace an evening of Schumann symphonies and the scheduled world première of Jimmy López’s Aurora, for Solo Violin and Orchestra.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Martin Sigmund

Familiar and familiarly brilliant, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol set the concert off to a sparkling start. The five-movement work saw its première in St Petersburg in 1887 and, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s mind, was his best orchestration before Wagner’s music drama beguiled him. After the grand opening sweep, guest concertmaster Richard Lin proved to be both a charismatic leader and compelling soloist, casting all the light finger acrobatics and harmonics off with jolly ease. The slower conversations, between winds and lower strings, resonated grandly and flowed seamlessly under Houston Symphony’s artistic director and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s adroit direction. Building to a furious pace, the Fandango asturiano practically flew off the stage. 

Leticia Moreno, a Spanish violinist originally slotted to make her Houston debut with López’s world première, graced the stage instead with the saucy Four Seasons of Piazzolla's Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas. It’s hard to fault a soloist who agrees to perform another work at the last minute, but her performance had undeniable traces of haste. Small details, such as her magnificent 1762 Nicolò Gagliano violin continuously slipping out of tune and her use of sheet music, gave way to larger issues. After a long pause following Rimsky-Korsakov, Andrés Orozco-Estrada came on stage alone, apologizing and saying they would begin as soon as they found their soloist. Moreno soon appeared and played with the gusto of a woman who was trying to make up for lost time. Resultantly, the wild passion of each season – the humorous winks at Vivaldi, the whines and slides that tend to charm all audiences – winnowed into a perfunctory experience. In contrast, her encore, the Adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001, was pensive, thoughtful, and darkly sweet.

Beethoven finished writing his Seventh Symphony in 1812 reawakened after convalescing at the Bohemian spa Teplitz, its history a gladdening metaphor for the sentiment in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio, audiences love the Seventh and know it well, but Orozco-Estrada did not strike quite the same effect with tempos and dynamics as he did with the glistening Rimsky. The first movement was too slow, the famed second a touch too fast. After a conservative Presto, Orozco-Estrada pushed to the fourth attacca and pulled out the passionate animation from earlier with dramatic drops from forte to piano.

For a symphony – and a city – still recovering from a flood, it was a hearty offering of work that has stood the test of centuries and a reminder that even in the face of great disaster, great beauty endures.