History plays an important, if sometimes overlooked, role in how we listen to concerts. In a program with Chabrier’s España and Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, the Houston Symphony ambitiously unearthed Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto, last heard at its première with the New York Philharmonic in 1935. With no recordings and its score only recently restored, it means understanding a world première outside of its contemporary moment. When that première comes across as flimsy, it is a reminder of how nostalgia, record, and experience determine the value of a work.

Brinton Averil Smith
Brinton Averil Smith
There’s a great story, however, behind this work and how it resurfaced. Born in Florence in 1895, Castelnuovo-Tedesco enjoyed a relatively successful career, with concertos commissioned by renowned figures like Jascha Heifetz and Andrés Segovia. He fled fascist Italy in the 1930s for America and ended up largely composing for Hollywood, with a few exceptions including a cello concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky, who premièred the work with Arturo Toscanini in New York. Brinton Averil Smith, principal cellist of the Houston Symphony and soloist, came across a brief mention of the concerto while reading Piatigorsky’s autobiography and began a quest to find the work that culminated in last night’s performance.

With three movements, the concerto is formatted as an extended cadenza. It opens with the soloist alone and the orchestra responds in kind, imitating certain phrases and themes. All the virtuoso acrobatics are here: double stops, long-ranging arpeggios that span the length of the fingerboard and scale flurries, intermixed with passionate but short melodies. It resembles other grandiose, show-off works, like Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole in D minor for violin, which hold their own in the repertoire by virtue of the reputation they’ve built up over the years more than anything else. Here, the extent of the contrast between the soloist, alone in the hall as if performing a wildly difficult unaccompanied suite, and the orchestra, pattering along behind, sounds more like a mash-up than a dialogue.

I’ve long admired Smith as a principal with the Symphony. He is a strong, intuitive leader and never fails to guide his section with sumptuous tone and elegant technique. As a soloist with this concerto, however, he maintained stage presence but didn’t emerge as an individual. Although the cello is often striking chords and dashing through runs by itself, when the orchestra did join in, it often covered his sound. The exception, however, was a delightfully innocent second movement, the Allegretto gentile. It toyed with whimsical phrases bolstered by the harp and celeste, like a child running through a field, and this lighter fare was ideal for Smith’s strengths. And his encore, Sea Murmurs also by Castelnuovo-Tedesco with celeste accompaniment by Scott Holshouser, solidified this—a daydream reverie of pure delight.

Chabrier’s España and Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat bookended the concerto: the first, a grand invitation to a lighthearted celebration; the second, the moment when guest conductor Kazuki Yamada took his turn in the spotlight. Until then, Yamada had maintained a reserved style. But after a bold “Introduction: Allegro ma non troppo” sung confidently by mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, Yamada seemed to relax and gain comfort with the work. The precise cues he delivered throughout the evening now took on a certain panache. Merriment, a simple concept but an important one in work like this, paired with a hint of sultriness and built up to the “Final Dance,” when the symphony bellowed out in a resonance I had waited all night to hear. For some works that we love today, it’s the memory of hearing them over decades that makes them worth hearing for decades more; for others, it’s the bold self-assurance of a well-crafted work that knows how to have fun.