In my youth, a violin teacher reassured me that as long as the beginning and the end of a performance came together, no one would remember any grievances in between. Whether or not that is true, the axiom held for Houston Symphony’s concert of Barber, Schumann, and Brahms.

The concert opened festively with Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal—a piece he wrote when he was only 21. A short work, it was nevertheless memorable. Punchy and exciting, it also anticipated his Adagio for Strings in several thoughtful passages that Houston Symphony delivered with introspection. The oboe interlude, which Adam Dinitz carried with feeling, was particularly riveting.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Marco Borggreve
Second was Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor with soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. It’s not a piece that falls in with the canon of big violin concertos: Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, or Beethoven. In a video interview that played while the stage was being re-arranged, Kopatchinskaja passionately advocated for the inclusion of Schumann in the repertoire, arguing that through it we “feel the shadow of ourselves,” that the music is truth itself. But in performance, she did not manage to make a very good case for Schumann.

Kopatchinskaja is an eclectic performer. She walked to center stage and slipped off her shoes. Her bare toes peeked out from under her red gown, curling into the stage from time to time. During the orchestral preamble to her solo, she tossed head and sang along silently, popping her mouth and jutting out her chin at the audience. And visual eccentricities are certainly shared by other performers, but to get away with it, you also have to deliver a good performance.

Robert Schumann, born in 1810, embodies German Romanticism, a period of intense feeling and technical agility. While Kopatchinskaja undoubtedly expressed feeling through her body, her playing was surprisingly sloppy. She used sheet music, which indicated that perhaps she did not have the work under her fingers as well as she might have us believe. Sliding the bow on its edge, she pulled wispy notes from her instrument that often caught an unintended harmonic. She oscillated between leaning into a note with no vibrato and then tumbling down to the G string in dark, vividly vibrating color. Clearly, she has talent, but what happened here? Botched chords that crushed into the string rather than sail out from the instrument, runs that didn’t quite make it up to their destination and instead petered out and erratic bowing made all three movements sound messy. Despite conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s best efforts, the orchestra struggled to find Kopatchinskaja’s beat—and who can blame them?

For her encore (and yes, the audience did give her a standing ovation, but I haven’t been to a concert yet where Houston hasn’t generously gotten to their feet for a soloist), Kopatchinskaja played several selections by György Kurtág, notably his Op. 24 for soprano and violin from Kafka-Fragmente. She performed both parts. Kopatchinskaja really pulled off Kurtág, who is an incredibly complex composer and demands a distinctive queerness—something Kopatchinskaja seemed much better suited for than Schumann’s Romantic sensibilities.

Nevertheless, the night closed out with real Romantic panache: Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D major. The strings were rich, the winds twinkled, and Kopatchinskaja’s chaotic performance melted from memory. As a conductor, Orozco-Estrada continues to surprise me. He will never stop being a joy to watch as he dips and dances on his podium.