Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, music director of the Houston Symphony and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, made a very strong impression in his debut at Cleveland’s Severance Hall on Thursday, in a program featuring three early 20th-century works. His performances of Kodály, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky were not just technically sound, but throughout the evening he consistently shaped musical lines sensitively and flexibly with attention to musical colors. He was aided by the fine playing of The Cleveland Orchestra for an unusually satisfying evening.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Martin Sugmund
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Martin Sugmund

Zoltán Kodály’s Galántai Tánkoc (Dances of Galánta) was first performed in 1933, based on the local music of Kodály’s home town Galánta, then in northern Hungary, now in Slovakia. Gypsy influence is present, as well as music he heard played by the local band, in various tempi, intended for dancing. Kodály dressed them up in lavish and colorful orchestrations, but, unlike Stravinsky’s Russian folk tunes in The Firebird and Rite of Spring, the tunes in Kodály are never far from the surface. From the opening cello melody with fluttering string figurations, Kodály gives the orchestral soloists prominence, with a brilliant, arpeggiated clarinet solo, and a haunting horn solo. Later, oboe, flute, and piccolo solos are pitted against radiant high percussion.

Unlike his fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók’s exploration of jagged folk rhythms in groups of 5 and 7, interspersed with 3 and 4, Kodály’s rhythms are more traditionally four-square. Dances of Galánta are indicated as five separate movements, played without pause, and it is not always clear where one ends and the next begins. At the end of the final dance Kodály’s dance picks up steam to full throttle, but then – suddenly – there is a grand pause and a moment of lyricism before the activity resumes to a rousing conclusion. Andrés Orozco-Estrada graciously gave solo bows to the soloists before he took his own. The Dances of Galánta are perhaps not as interesting as some of Bartók’s explorations of similar source material, but The Cleveland Orchestra and Orozco-Estrada gave the Kodály work a convincing outing.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor is the work of a young, imaginative pianist anxious to show of his own prodigious talent. Composed in 1890–91 and revised in 1917 just before Rachmaninov left Russia forever, the music is awash with virtuosity, but mercurial, with many musical ideas flowing one after another, less well integrated than Rachmaninov’s later works. After opening brass fanfares, the soloist launches into intricate passages that seldom stop during the course of the concerto. Kirill Gerstein was the very fine soloist, combining virtuosity and, at times, massive sound with gentle, lyrical freedom not always found in performances of Rachmaninov’s concertos. Gerstein’s background as a jazz pianist showed through in his mastery of easy rubato without loss of overall pulse. Unlike some of the younger steel-fingered virtuosos currently on the musical scene blasting through this repertoire, Gerstein’s sensitive musicality was apparent throughout. The first movement was full of romantic abandon, especially in the lengthy cadenza. The second movement is relatively brief, an “intermezzo”. Again, Orozco-Estrada proved to be an attentive accompanist, attuned to the ebb and flow of the musical lines. The third movement, with fistfuls of notes on the piano, was fleet and scherzo-like, with a moment of repose before the brilliant conclusion. Gerstein was completely deserving of the ovation he received at the end.

Who could have predicted that Igor Stravinsky’s music for choreographer Michel Fokine’s 1910 ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird) would set off the musically earthshaking scores that followed, Petrushka (1911) and especially The Rite of Spring (1913)? Yet the seeds are there in The Firebird, with its drawing upon Russian folklore and music, and previously unheard combinations of orchestral sounds. From the complete ballet Stravinsky drew three suites, in 1911, 1919, and 1945. This performance was of the less often played 1945 suite.

As in the rest of this concert, Andrés Orozco-Estrada and The Cleveland Orchestra were attuned to the details of Stravinsky’s musical line and orchestrations, from the opening mysterious low rumbles in the double basses and cellos, and bass drum, to the concluding brilliant fanfares. There were long, sensuous legato passages full of exotic grandeur, but also attention to chamber music-like sound and precision. The orchestral soloists were all top notch, but special mention must be made of the horn, clarinet and bassoon.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada made an unusually strong impression is his Cleveland debut performance. At least one listener is hoping for a return visit.

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