Houston Symphony Orchestra’s opening night presented America three ways with a slice of sophisticated Russia. From the American national anthem to An American in Paris and back to New York City for West Side Story with Joshua Bell, Stravinksy’s L’oiseau de feu stuck out as the most remarkable piece on the program.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Martin Sigmund
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Martin Sigmund

Playing Suite for Violin and Orchestra from West Side Story, an arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s musical by William David Brohn, Bell was confident but underwhelming – a disappointment due to the choice of repertoire. Brohn’s arrangement re-imagines West Side Story as a tone poem. It sounds like a hit compilation of favorites, songs like “I feel pretty” and “Maria” cut and glued together as a light medley. The construction is hummable until Bell’s cadenza hits three-quarters of the way through – a wild flourish he composed. But even before the cadenza, a truly impressive show of sheer skill indeed, the violin solo falls out of place from the breezy orchestra. A slew of double stops and finger-flying runs sits heavy against Bernstein’s original style, as if an old Romantic has come and crashed the party.

This was Bell’s first time performing with music director and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and their collaboration on stage felt easy, even charming. Orozco-Estrada, still bending and weaving from Gershwin’s An American in Paris, caught the spirit of Bernstein, even though Brohn’s arrangement did not. It seems to be a Houston tradition to begin opening night with the Star-Spangled Banner. Gershwin, first on the program, followed the anthem with panache. The beeps and bops leapt from the stage; the softer, slower sections struck a silvery timbre. But as the opening piece of the symphony’s 102nd season, it was perhaps too carefree, too amusing.

Last on the program, Stravinsky’s suite from The Firebird proved the symphony’s capacity for depth. A ballet commission from Sergei Diaghilev, the work was a major turning point for Stravinsky in 1910, shifting him from a relatively unknown composer to a household name. Stravinsky composed this concert suite later in 1919, a shorter and arguably more refined version of the ballet. The lower strings, eerily smooth and dazzling, continue to be the most sophisticated section of Houston’s orchestra, although the percussion later in the piece was astoundingly spot on. The scraping repeated down bows that pepper the fourth movement, “Danse infernale” were full of passion and dark fire. In comparison to the jovial Gershwin and Brohn, it felt particularly weighty and momentous.

The final cut-off – a stunning sweep of Orozco-Estrada’s hand – roused such a standing ovation that it earned an encore: Bernstein’s overture to Candide. A comic operetta first performed in Boston in 1956, Candide fell back in with the bulk of the program’s lighthearted tone. But the operetta’s narrative is not quite as trivial. In line with Voltaire’s novel of the same name, the story follows an earnest young man who believes the best of everything until a series of catastrophes, including the tragic death of his beloved, cause the idealist to reconsider. And perhaps this is the best indicator in the opening night for what we can hope to hear in the season to come: some serious work sandwiched between airy audience favorites.