Before starting the Ives Symphony no. 1, the Houston Symphony conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada said a few words to his audience. “You will have the feeling that you are hearing many composers at once,” he said waving his hand. While the Ives does pull from many familiar styles, the concert as a whole, moving from Ives to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and finishing retrospectively with Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7, held a distinct, memorable coherency.

Martin Fröst © Nikolaj Lund
Martin Fröst
© Nikolaj Lund

A solo clarinet opens Ives’ symphony supported by soft, patterned strings that quickly take over the theme. The HS is particularly adept at passing lines from section to section, a technique rife in the first movement. The phrases turn unpredictably from serene to anxious and back, asking the musicians to be light and quick to respond to mood changes. The brass section, waiting patiently for their big entrance, bellowed majestically before the lower strings turned to pizzicato hearkening to a jazzy walking bass line.

This first movement, which begins in a pastoral glow, ends darkly. The subsequent movements follow suit, turning swiftly from lively and light to tempestuous. The sections, working all the time together, begin to sound as if they are coming apart and about to fall in disarray. It’s a critical, on-the-edge feeling for an orchestra to achieve, and the HS reached the precipice with panache. The final movement, Allegro molto, especially highlighted the orchestra’s sensitivity as an ensemble. It felt like a entering a bustling room of evening conversation, a happy cacophony of thoughts with some left unfinished, interrupted by a turn in discussion.

Like the Ives, Copland's Clarinet Concerto begins peacefully. Martin Fröst, in his HS debut, left a deep impression. From the humble beginning, Fröst cradled the piece confidently yet delicately. He is a powerful musician to watch, not least because he gives the impression he is not playing for you, but for something higher or beyond. But Fröst remains present, too, directing his gaze at sections as if conducting. Even with the enigmatic Orozco-Estrada at the podium, Fröst was indelibly in control. Sweeping his feet in circles one at a time, ducking and diving, hunching his back before springing forward and swinging his clarinet toward the ceiling reaching and pulling simultaneously, Fröst was more than a musical emblem.

Initially, Dvořák's Seventh Symphony felt drab after Fröst’s frenzied performance. A few bumpy horn entrances in the Allegro maestoso did little to raise the mood. Given the influence Dvořák had on the American style evident in Ives and Copland’s work, perhaps the symphony would have been better situated first on the program to lay an aural foundation. Then again, because the final flaring slide of Copland’s concerto was still ringing in the back of the hall, the latent jazz elements of Dvořák surfaced rather like unfamiliar but welcome presages. At the end of each movement, Orozco-Estrada held the air possessively before dropping his baton. Energy built and blossomed in the second movement when the horns found their footing and a shimmer of rich sound dropped like rain drops.

The Finale: Allegro, with its ominous and almost oceanic tide, worked its way to a grand concluding chord. And it was here in this last resounding moment that the concert made the most sense together and, rather, felt not only like a program of one composer, but also of one aural body.

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