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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Concert Review: Revenge of the Nerds

Andrés Orozco-Estrada debuts with the Cleveland Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Talk to the hands: Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada
made his Cleveland Orchestra debut this week.
Photo by Werner Kmetitsch courtesy the artist's website.
Things are changing at Severance Hall, the staid Egyptian-inspired concert hall that squats, temple-like at the side of the lagoon in eastern Cleveland, Ohio. On Thursday night, the lobby of Severance was decorated with a bright neon and incandescent sign: the word NERDS blazing red and green, inviting concertgoers to take selfies with this work of pop art.

More importantly, this week's concert program featured a fine young conductor making his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra: the Colombian export Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Mr. Orozco-Estrada is the music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He was given a challenging program: lesser-known works by Kodaly and Rachmaninoff plus the 1945 version of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite a workd that makes considerable demands on any conductor.

The concert opened with the Dances of Galanta, isnpired by Kodaly's travels through Hungary in pursuit of his country's folk-music heritage. The Dances began in a slow and stately fashion, offering ample opportunity for the clarinet and oboe to engage in display. As the woodwinds dived and rose over the orchestra, the pace slowly increased, expertly managed by the young conductor. The work rose to a set of stirring, exuberant climaxes, finishing on the crash of a final chord.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was a formidable figure, not just for his great height, shorn head and dour expression, but for that he combined the resources of composer, conductor and virtuoso soloist in a way that is matched by only a few others. The Piano Concerto No. 1 was written when he was only 18. Presented here in its 1919 revision with soloist Kirill Gerstein, it is an atypical work for Rachmaninoff, lacking the sense of continuity and flow that make his later works so compelling.

However, its main thematic ideas provided ample opportunity for Mr. Gerstein to add ornamentation as the piano kept skittering off the main theme, ranging out for a few bars and then rejoining the fray like a hunting dog coming back to its master. The slow central movement built itself into a gradual accelerando, finishing with glittering ornamentation for the soloist and a fast finish. This paved the way for the finale, which opens with rapidly shifting time signatures and a late, but surging reprise of the opening motif.

Stravinsky's Firebird was the first score that he wrote for Serge Diaghalev's Ballet-Russe in Paris, and the work that established his reputation at the forefront of contemporary Russian composers a century ago. Under Mr. Orozco-Estrada, this familiar score (performed in a suite version created by the composer himself that tones down some of the original orchestration and makes less demands on the listener in terms of detail and time) still sounded fresh and vibrant. The Cleveland soloists were up to the work's tasks, with the evocative opening in the bass and the famous "Khorova" dance taken at an unusually fast tempo.

As the final secions of Firebird approached, the timpanist hunched over his right-side instrument, making sure of the pitch for the crucial final pages. This is passage is not quite atonal but makes use of a unique Russian scale favored by Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.  Mr. Orozco-Estrada whipped up a huge storm of sound, with the violent bass-drum bangs and cross-rhythms serving as a kind of prototype for the later violence of The Rite of Spring. And then it was time for the hymn-like call from the principal horn and the shift into a welcome major key as the orchestra loped into the home stretch. With this swelling of bowed strings and final fanfare of trumpets, Mr. Orozco-Estrada's triumph was assured.

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