Who would have thought a program of water sprites and revolutions spanning 200 years could be so seamless? Houston Symphony’s concert of Mozart and Shostakovich opened vivaciously with Mendelssohn’s 1833 fairy tale ode Ouverture zum Märchen von der schöne Melusine and concluded gloriously with Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony.

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

Between these two musical delights, twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton whipped off Mozart’s 1780 Concerto in E flat major for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K365. The Naughton sisters are technically as well as emotionally trained, bending their necks and tossing their chins with precision that was perhaps too practiced. There were some phrases in the Allegro that were a touch too romantic for Mozart’s clean classical lines, but the two women captured the playful spunk of the competing phrasing, particularly in the first movement’s cadenza. Mozart demands precision, of course, making any remarkable performance one that also accesses the deeper, wilder emotion under the tightly pressed construction. After a middling, controlled ending to the Rondeau: Allegro, the sisters returned to appease applause with an incredible encore – the ambitious Variations on a Theme by Paganini by Lutosławski. The plasticity that held the Naughtons back during the concerto fell away completely here, proving these two women have notably critical depth.

Characteristically, conductor and music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada directed with energy and panache. Mendelssohn's Ouverture, which chronicles the folk story of ill-fated love between the water sprite Melusina and a dashing knight, began with a sweet purity, inspiring dreams of flower-covered hills in the country and gently gurgling brooks. But it turns on its emotional heel quickly from this pastoral scene to one of angst embodied by the insistent five-note motif that rolls from section to section. Orozco-Estrada is a delight to watch, in part because he dances on the podium in a way that suggests unrestrained joy. But don’t let his obvious passion distract from his ability to hold back, to control, to gracefully resist and withhold patiently until the moment is right. It was this quality that made the Mendelssohn a success and, later, the Shostakovich a glorious revolution in its own right.

Written in 1961, Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12 in D minor (sometimes known as The Year 1917) is a continuous four-movement journey from “Revolutionary Petrograd” to the “Dawn of Humanity” and is dedicated to Lenin. It relies on a foundation of the dark, thick timbre in the lower strings – a particular strength of Houston Symphony. The score asks for a certain sharpness from string players, the biting snap of the bow cutting into the string, contrasted often in the space of a few bars by its opposite: the whispering of a few bows hairs barely glancing the string, gliding eerily in a quiet hum. And the strings nailed it. But the real glory of the symphony rests with the brass and, finally, the percussion section in the pounding, three-note part that proclaims revolution. Beautiful, majestic hymns from the trombones on one side of the stage and the French horns on the other arrived in a blaze of resplendence.

A rather unfortunate set of slides tried to complement the symphony. Shostakovich survived as a composer in Stalin’s Russia. What this means, simply, is that his work can’t be accounted for in any small nutshell. He struggled against a sea of censorship, accusation and political strife that cannot be breezily accounted for, particularly in a slide show. Even if these unfortunate footnotes that flanked the stage and horribly distracted from the music had, somehow, managed to scratch more than the surface of Shostakovich’s legacy, audiences paying attention to what they’re supposed to be “learning” from the music miss out on the musical experience itself. History of works is important, but the first step is experiencing its sound; a piece that great doesn’t need any commentary.

***11