It is odd to pair a seven-minute world première with a 72-minute Mahler Symphony, particularly when a 15-minute intermission separates them. But there is so much life packed in to John Corigliano’s STOMP for Orchestra, that the two halves of Houston Symphony Orchestra’s concert felt surprisingly well balanced.

John Corigliano © J Henry Fair
John Corigliano
© J Henry Fair
But this statement comes with a few caveats, not least because the première was performed twice. When was the last time a world première did not go quite as it should, and the conductor turned around and repeated it? Also, the piece is in a grey area as far as calling it a “world première.” Originally, Corigliano composed STOMP as a violin solo for the Tchaikovsky Competition semi-finals. His arrangement of the piece for orchestra sounds both twangy and sexy, with fiddle romps in the strings and big jazzy scoops and yelps from the brass. Halfway through the work, the stage fills up with foot tapping and stomping in a flurry of different rhythms across the sections. It is delightfully snappy, even if it’s not entirely new material per sé.

In an introduction, Corigliano shared that the stomping aspect proved particularly challenging for Houston’s orchestra in rehearsal. And indeed, when the stomping section first hit, the musicians’ feet seemed unsure and sounded scattered in an unplanned way. When the piece was done, and many audience members had already leapt to their feet in a standing ovation, conductor and HSO music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada swiveled on the podium and announced with a fiery smile on his face: “Houston needs to hear things twice – tempo primo!” Perhaps there had been too many mistakes for Orozco-Estrada to let it stand, or perhaps he simply did this because the piece was so short. Either way, the event showed an impassioned side of Orozco-Estrada that he has, until now, kept relatively under wraps.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor followed with a solemn weight, leaving little doubt of HSO’s abilities when stomping isn’t in the score. Mahler wrote the symphony over two summers in 1901 and 1902. His Fifth Symphony marks a break in the pattern set in the first four in terms of orchestration and mixed timbres, something Mahler himself called a “new style”. While the first three movements were thoughtfully expressed, from Trauermarsch to the Scherzo that nailed Mahler’s nicht zu schnell tempo direction, the Adagietto was stunning. It is rumored that Mahler sent the Adagietto as a musical love letter to Alma Schindler, and HSO’s performance certainly captured the purity of a younger desperate love. But within the folds of beauty lay a serene sadness, too, as though it were so lovely that it induced tears – a thrilling and rare emotion to feel at the symphony.

The Rondo-Finale was big and bright in all the right places and ended the night on an exciting note that seemed to tie nicely back to the rousing STOMP. But Corigliano, who, sitting plainly in the middle of the hall had kept his fingers tightly laced and tucked under his chin for almost the entirety of the Mahler, might disagree.