A Little Schumann with Your Beethoven?

A pizzicato—the string vibrating against the fingerboard, sound reverberating against the air for a tiny moment—opened all three pieces on the program last night at Jones Hall. Concluding Houston Symphony’s “Three Weeks of Beethoven,” the First and Fourth symphonies were staple gems. But Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, sandwiched in between and performed by Brinton Averil Smith, was the surprise highlight.

After Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Franz Schubert lamented, “Who would be able to do anything after Beethoven?” and with good reason. Beethoven’s work is masterful, insightful, and more radical than many audiences realize. The First Symphony was first performed at the turn of the century in 1800, and its attaches to more formal traditions of the eighteenth-century while edging toward Romantic ideals.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada opened the Adagio molto—Allegro con brio deliberately. The delicate lyrical passing from first violins to second, from flutes to cellos, was jerky when it should have been glassy, which could have been covered more seamlessly with a faster tempo. Orozco-Estrada bounced on his knees to start the Andante cantabile con moto—a movement that calls for even more intricate lyrical weaving and overlay between sections. It’s a fragile yet sparkling machine, but this performance lacked the spark. The opening timpani boom was an invigorating turn in the third movement, and with hardly a breath in between, Orozco-Estrada headed into the fourth. He’s a fun conductor to watch. When he released the violins into the Allegro with a pop of his hand, I heard several people chuckle around me. With so much energy radiating from his every gesture, it didn’t make sense that the orchestra’s sound didn’t match in vigor.

As charismatic as Orozco-Estrada is, he knows not to steal the show when there’s a soloist. Swaying and hugging his cello, Brinton Averil Smith brought poignancy to Schumann’s Concerto. He pulled a dark, amber sound from the C-string, rounding it out with a warm vibrato—Smith knows how to draw a phrase and gently free it. In moments of passion, Smith bit the string with his bow, cutting the deeper notes into clean slices of sound. The highlight was the duet between Smith and the first cellist, Anthony Kitai. Smith is usually in that position as Houston Symphony’s principle, and the camaraderie between the instruments spoke a certain familiarity that might be missed with a visiting soloist. The lines folded over each other beautifully.

The gradual opening to Beethoven’s Fourth can sizzle with anticipation. Last night, it met the air cumbersomely in the form of a flat flute. But by the Allegro vivace, it was rousing and lively. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Fourth Symphony, which is so overshadowed by the Third and the Fifth. How can something come after the majestic Eroica or preface even the iconic four-note phrase of the Fifth? Orozco-Estrada gave the Fourth its own character. The Allegro ma non troppo took off at a wild speed, gathering momentum right up until the last note when Orozco-Estrada held on to the podium support with one hand while cutting the air with the other.

Houston Symphony has done some incredible things with great, big works like Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, and most recently Mozart’s Requiem. Beethoven’s Symphonies are a natural fit for its skill set, and so I was disappointed that the orchestra started off sounding almost bored. By the end, though, this concert was exciting. Who knew that a little romance from Schumann could galvanize the mighty Beethoven?

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