While a few late arrivals found their seats, conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada filled the time with an impromptu introduction of Friday’s program, a line-up of Gershwin, Adams, and Rachmaninov. In a week that he described as “interesting” – a careful gesture to a politically wrought few days since the presidential inauguration – Orozco-Estrada celebrated the Americans on the program who represented unity and beauty in unsettled times.

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

The night opened lightly with Gershwin’s classic An American in Paris. Punchy accents, flashy scales and cheeky chromatic phrases make this a fun listen no matter how many times I’ve heard it. Orozco-Estrada remains as charismatic as ever, physically winding his body through the taxi horns and trumpet blues solo. He pushed tempos and handled abrupt transitions adeptly to foster the sultry and carefree attitudes that characterize this repertoire staple.

But the real showstopper of the evening was John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony (an adaptation of his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic) which, in the year of the composer's 70th birthday, had everyone sitting up straighter on stage. The Houston Symphony doesn’t tend toward new music generally, and it was evident that they had put some extra rehearsal time into Adams’ complex score. Adams designed it as three continuous movements. First is “The Laboratory,” a nod to 1950s science fiction films, then the frenzied “Panic” movement, followed by “Trinity,” which he models after John Donne’s holy sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’d God”. The opera follows J. Robert Oppenheimer as he develops the nuclear bomb. This last movement, as Adams said in a video introduction before the symphony started, is the moment when Oppenheimer wonders if he can regain his soul.

The sound of the symphony is insistent at first with relentless scales moving across the symphony in varying time signatures. The balance in the construction itself garners respect; when shimmering violins build a foggy foundation for the brass to belt out lyrics or when six different competing rhythms across sections somehow come together coherently, I was awestruck. One moment, sounds are creeping from the mist, in another they are ballooning in dynamic crescendo hairpins. The symphony works as a kind of explosive itself, with all the rich tonal colors for which Adams is famous.

Last on the program was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor which, after that absolutely perfect opening lyric, suffers a bit in its construction (particularly compared to the first and second concertos). It’s all bluster and flourish. Even so, it's always exhilarating to watch a pianist take it on. If you listen to the 1939 recording of Rachmaninov playing, you’ll notice an uncanny even quality of assertiveness and gentleness. Denis Kozhukhin leaned into the work boldly and left most of the subtlety behind.

Kozhukhin, who made his Houston Symphony debut in 2014, literally bent toward this work as his piano stool had one stubbornly short leg. When he first walked on stage and sat down, the audience cooed with worry as he rocked backward. Orozco-Estrada gestured anxiously towards the wings for a replacement, but Kozhukhin brushed all worries aside. He performed with utter confidence, fluttering off his seat from time to time to press even further into the keys. After a standing ovation, he played the same encore he performed at his debut, "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, arranged by Giovanni Sgambatti, a delicate counterpoint to the furious main dish. Kozhukhin is a pianist with emotional range to be sure. Who knows what he could have done on a well-tempered piano bench?