Houston Symphony’s opening night was an odd trio: Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. With Sir Ben Kingsley as narrator, Peter and the Wolf drew some star power, but it was Rosenkavalier – epic and lush – that really offered a taste of what the symphony will offer this season.

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

Music director and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada snapped open the concert with Rossini. It’s a crowd-pleasing piece of music, setting the scene for this opera semiseria, and the Symphony didn’t sell it as anything we should take very seriously. A few exposed spiccato string excerpts didn’t settle together, but Orozco-Estrada always offers some element of passion to see. Here, a third of the way in, he broke into a small waltz on the tips of his toes.

Favorite narrators in Peter and the Wolf change with each generation: I will always hear Sterling Holloway, who narrated the Disney’s 1946 film version that I watched perpetually as a child, but the many children around me at this performance will likely not forget Ben Kingsley’s performance any time soon. From the start, his voice carried a smiling joke with every word. Nothing was frightening, not even the wolf, with his unwaveringly sturdy British cadence. Introducing each instrument (“There is a duck, too”), Kingsley would turn and tilt his head in the musician’s direction. He watched Orozco-Estrada carefully for cues, acting as a musician himself. Peter and the Wolf might be a children’s story, but Kingsley’s astounding and award-winning artistry emphasized the sophisticated harmonies and phrasing that Prokofiev worked in so brilliantly.

Nevertheless, nothing rivaled Rosenkavalier to show the Symphony’s chops. By nature, opera overtures and program music settles the Symphony itself into the background as secondary to some other key element. It’s curious to program an opening night with second-fiddle work; at least I thought so until this Strauss. It’s a tremendously beautiful work as it stands, but the choice showed the Houston Symphony’s strengths: big sound, good ensemble and a special emotional presence that Orozco-Estrada inspires overall.

After Peter and the Wolf, Orozco-Estrada returned to his podium and began the Strauss so quickly that the audience was still applauding his re-entrance. He waltzed during this piece too, but what had come before – and what came afterwards – had significantly more depth than the Rossini across the boards. At one point, Orozco-Estrada leaned so far back against the support on his podium that his body curved into a semi-circle.

Like most suites, Rosenkavalier whets the appetite for all number of scenes and passions from bombastic horn cries to intimate chamber respites. Noah Geller, guesting as Concertmaster from the Kansas City Symphony, carried with just the right amount of vigor and tenderness – Rosenkavalier is an opera about love at the end of the day. And by the end of this concert, it made sense to feature a piece that previewed so much, encapsulating untold elation for the season to come.