Moving from the fairy dust rising through the mists of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the furious darkness of Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 feels abrupt. But the pairing of the two works in the first half of Houston Symphony’s program served to enrich and embolden the already bold Bartók. Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, which followed after intermission, could hardly compete.

But this is perhaps because Gilbert Varga held the baton. A British conductor and son of celebrated Hungarian violinist Tibor Varga, he is a perplexing leader to watch – a conductor of some contradiction. He walked out to conduct the Mendelssohn with a warm grin, but he took on a serious gaze as he cast the downbeat for the flutes, his unusually long jacket floating around his hips. One moment he embodied a stricter, more conservative style; the next, his baton would be pointed at the floorboards, circling the air, while his left hand twinkled above over his head. Sometimes during the Mozart, he looked like he was about to waltz, while at other times his feet would be planted firmly with no promise of movement. His distinctive style was difficult to pinpoint: is he carelessly precise, or simply careless, which is another thing altogether? I wonder if the musicians might have struggled to read his vision as well. 

It is not that the Mendelssohn was not delightful, as the piece reliably lends itself to be. The skittering strings that come on the heels of the winds captured an ethereal piano dynamic, and the air seemed to jump with the flap of fairies’ wings at dusk. The opening wind motif could have been a little tighter in terms of intonation, but it was still a magical ushering into the forested grove of Shakespearean imagination.

The Mozart was also reliably enjoyable. Much like his grin, Varga pulled a warm sound from the orchestra. The scales running down in the first movement were clean and showed off the skill of each string section as a whole. The thing about Mozart though, is that he is never as innocent as he seems. Under a disguise of unmitigated phrasing, there is a latent cheekiness. Not every performance finds this under layer. The Finale: Allegro broached Mozartian mischief, if only in the flying tempo Varga struck.

While the Mendelssohn and Mozart were good but unremarkable, Augustin Hadelich’s performance of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto was something I’ll be marveling over days to come. Glancing off the harp’s opening, Hadelich lit into the first movement, striking a timbre that glowed red. In the lower ranges, he stood to attention with his feet close together; in anticipation of double stops and veering runs, he braced his feet wide. In addition to double stops and flickering scales, Bartók demands octaves and slides that reach a pure and perfect conclusion. Breakneck phrases give way to incandescent, purposeful lines that snap all too quickly into another furious episode. It is a wicked part for any violinist and Hadelich relished it, unassumingly, as if it were an old friend.

Hadelich’s quiet confidence stole the show uniquely. It’s not as if other performers don’t commit to Bartók, or that other composers don’t ask as much from their performers, but that Hadelich found comfort in the music completely and forgot about the audience. To watch him play felt like safe, guilt-free eavesdropping. But, when acquiescing to a standing ovation, Hadelich played Paganinni's Caprice no. 5 in A minor as an encore, he proved he has a knack for engaging the audience, too. Technically brilliant and bright with virtuosity, Hadelich ended the caprice with his bow in the air, smiling widely.