The Houston Symphony returned to action Saturday night with an enterprising program consisting of a graceful flourish by 38-year-old Chilean Miguel Farias, Haydn's cruelly demanding D major Cello Concerto, and Beethoven's usefully short (in this time of pandemic-shortened concerts) Eighth Symphony. The concert marked the first time since March that the Chilean-Italian conductor Paolo Bortolameolli had been on a podium.

Paolo Bortolameolli conducts the Houston Symphony © Houston Symphony
Paolo Bortolameolli conducts the Houston Symphony
© Houston Symphony

Farias's El color del tiempo, which was premiered in 2007 by the Orchestre National de Lorraine, had an enigmatic philosophical tone as if it were meant instead to be a time of color; lots of ingenious swatches, stretches of fitful activity leading generally to a next swath, a fanfare out of Mahler; the momentum was rescued whenever in serious trouble by marimbas and other glowing sounds, ending quietly without ceremony.

Brinton Averil Smith, the Symphony's principal cello, approached Haydn's D major Concerto with bold courage and passionate, if inconsistently manufactured, strokes. His cadenzas were described as amalgams of Rostropovich, Feuermann, Klengel and the cellist himself, but mostly they were Maurice Gendron's, providing the cores which Smith then explored.

Conductor and an orchestra of about the same size Haydn would have had in Esterhazy started off the concerto at a moderate tempo, but Smith could never quite decide on tempo, and whether to be legato or perky; he played many of the usually slurred 16th-note passages and triplets as separate notes which added to the excitement and sheer kinetic energy but caused serious problems at times for both Smith and the orchestral strings. He was glacially slow for the second subject, and took a lot of poetic license at the top of phrases. Smith took the last movement at a terrific clip, faster than I have ever heard. Amazingly he tried – and almost brought off – taking the same speed for Haydn's little interlude tune in thirds.

Brinton Averil Smith © Houston Symphony
Brinton Averil Smith
© Houston Symphony

The Beethoven, with the orchestra at full strength, was a more conventionally successful affair. After a slightly uncertain opening, Bortolameolli, recently named Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proceeded with a broad sweep, solid sense of proportion and compelling articulation. He made the repeating phrases throughout the symphony feel like real dialogue with an ongoing sense of conversation. He polished a golden Beethovenian sound over a foundation of hammering brass, warm violins, superb timpani, cellos and double basses.

The Tempo di menuetto was more splendid than it usually is with nice punctuation marks from the brass and timpani. The iconic solo for the horns in the Trio was incomparably suave with an almost lyrical braying at the end of the phrase. Someone, however, might have told the camera crew that the cellists' role in the Trio is of crucial importance, especially as loud and crunchy as they were. The last movement developed some real power; towards the end, scenting the finish line, the orchestra finished brilliantly.

CEO John Mangum's introductions included an interview with the Symphony's principal horn William VerMeulen who talked about analogies between making music and cooking, and how the Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach had once conquered Vienna with a Mahler Fifth.

***11