There’s something undeniably satisfying about the timpani in Ottorino Respighi’s Pini di Roma. It starts the last movement quietly and carries on steadily through to the end. It builds, even while laying a continuous foundation for some stellar solos, so that by the end when it has reached a forte pitch, the piece arrives tremendously grand yet fondly familiar in a new, exciting realm. Closing an evening of Verdi, Corigliano, and Respighi’s Fontane di Roma at the Houston Symphony, the timpani transported the hall straight to a resplendent Italy.

Elina Vähälä © Antti Hannuniemi
Elina Vähälä
© Antti Hannuniemi

Verdi, the opera titan that he is, is hardly known for his second opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), but its overture opened this program with an unexpected punch of Italian energy under the fingers of guest conductor Vasily Petrenko. A tall man, Petrenko moves freely on the podium but perhaps uses his fingers – long, almost spider-like – most of all. He pushes and points and pulls notes, tempos, dynamics and vitality from curving wrist to snapping fingertip.

Making her Houston Symphony debut, violinist Elina Välhälä followed Petrenko’s lead with a vivid performance of Corigliano’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (The Red Violin). From the two opening solo chords that are met by a flurry of harp and winds, the piece is altogether a mystical conversation in desire. Välhälä, using sheet music but ever engaged in the work, added a distinct tension to Corigliano’s concerto, an urgent striving forward through runs, double stops, and dark bow crunches at the bridge. But Välhälä balanced this fierce attitude with serene harmonics and high notes, carefully controlling her vibrato to evoke the most soaring, haunting sounds. By the Accelerando finale, she had transformed into a formidable sprite.

A reliable pairing of Respighi’s two symphonic poems, Fontane di Roma and Pini di Roma, rounded out the evening. Written in 1914-16 and 1923-4 respectively, these orchestral works shimmer with imagery of ancient and pastoral Rome. Respighi studied with Rimsky-Korsakov (whose programmatic Scheherezade still reigns supreme in many halls) at the beginning of the 20th century in Russia before settling in at Rome's Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 1913. Although Respighi was composing during a tremendously experimental, not to mention political era, he tended to take inspiration from early music rather than any explicit contemporary engagement, like his other symphonic poem Church Windows, written in 1925, which pulls from Gregorian Chant.

It is little wonder, then, that columns readily rise out of the mists of the first movement, a fountain at dawn, in the mind’s eye. Houston Symphony continues to prove its aptitute with the big and grand symphonic repertoire. Petrenko set a traditional tempo but a palatial mood, shifting his weight and shaking his hair as the fountains relaxed into sunset by the final movement. The forlorn bell tolling at the end of Fountains, in harmonic opposition to the calm strings, made a gracious opening for Pines and its gratifying timpani.

Both Respighi works also showcased another big advantage the Symphony has: section leaders who can, in a second, emerge with a stunning solo from flute and clarinet to cello and English horn. After descending into the catacombs in the second movement and settling in the third, the Symphony rose up in its short final movement to achieve a massive sound. Turning to conduct the brass scattered throughout the hall, Petrenko’s face was a rare and happy glimpse of a conductor crusading to the finish.