Balanced, colorfully varied works from the standard repertory characterized conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s BSO conducting debut last night: Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Bartók’s lurid pantomime suite from the Miraculous Mandarin, and Enescu’s spirited Volkbild the Romanian Rhapsody in A, alongside the valedictorian poetry of piano soloist Emmanuel Ax’s refined take on Mozart’s elegant Piano Concerto, K. 456. The evening’s aural menu gave listeners a broad scope of aesthetic pairings that kept one enthusiastically engaged throughout.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture stands among his most enduring symphonic masterpieces, if also something of a kitsch symphonic tradition to most orchestras and conductors. It is no less satisfying even if, in this instance, it acted as a warmup for both conductor and band to stretch their musical muscles before more demanding feats to come.
The slow, Friar Lawrence introduction was sumptuously blended among the winds, aided by dialogue with strings. This moment could only be criticized for its relative stiffness. The Montague-Capulet sword-fighting section of the work provided some elastic relief as the musicians could rhythmically flow with the driven music. A seamless transition marked the flow of the bellicose section to the first of the two famous affettuoso apotheose in the work: luxuriously pronounced by Robert Sheena on English horn. Streams of contrapuntal imitation clearly sounded from the strings and brass in the reemergence of the battle motif, all leading to the second, affettuoso passage climax. Orozco-Estrada led this moment with a perfectly intuitive sense of ritenuto at the precipice of the cadence. As the final fanfare chords lapsed into silenced, the resolute fin to la conte aux amants à la folie resulted in a moderate ovation.
Emmanuel Ax then joined reduced ranks of the BSO for a nuanced rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B-flat major, No 18. Orozco-Estrada achieved classical balance, a light and easy-going repartee of statements and thematic material as the basis for this quintessential Mozart. Ax phrased the first movement, Allegro vivace, with well-proportioned elegance, never languishing in tempo. The movement came as a verdant divertimento, even as circle-of-fifths modulations in the development portrayed some harmonic drama.
Good humor gave way to a serious, g-minor set of variations in the Andante. The melodic theme worked its way through stern half-step tilts in the root key, only to resolve in the relative major, B-flat. A melancholy scene of Mozartian introversion transfixed the listeners, as Orozco-Estrada phrased his forces in contrast to the embellished passages of Ax’s solo orations. Major mode variations provided some emotional relief, even if overshadowed by a bleak conclusion.
Proceeding with little pause, Ax launched into the rollicking, light-hearted Rondo, Allegro vivace. Marked with the same tempo as the first, it captured a greater spirit of liveliness from soloist and accompaniment. Real fun ensued in the grace-note patterns that chirped with humor; more drama transpired in the minore Rondo passage which Ax traversed with virtuoso gusto.
The major-minor moods of the Mozart concerto paired well alongside Ax’s well-earned encore: Schubert-Liszt’s Ständchen from Schwanengesang. Ax’s handling of the A-section return, with its voiced echoes, was particularly beautiful. As the break ensued, what appeared to be a masked Yo-Yo Ma discretely slipped out of the hall; he was no doubt there to support his good friend and long-time collaborator “Manny.”
After the break, Orozco-Estrada led his colleagues in an incisive, rhythmically charged rendition of Bartók’s Concert Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. This work, most often presented as it was this evening in its concert suite form, is a pantomime ballet in one act that features large orchestra and wordless chorus (omitted in the concert suite arrangement). The Tchaikovsky earlier in the evening poised the topic of fated, naïve love, whereas the Bartók frames the Freudian shadows of the subconscious Id.
As Steven Ledbetter’s note explains:
The tale is lurid and violent, set in a brothel. At the rise of the curtain, three ruffians enter with a girl. Finding no money in her flat, they order her to go to the window and attract a customer. Three times she lures men into the room; the first two have no money, and the ruffians unceremoniously throw them out. Finally a mysterious “Mandarin” enters, his face revealing no sign of emotion except for his burning eyes, which stare ceaselessly at the girl. She begins dancing with increasingly sensuality, but when he embraces her, trembling with passion, she tries to elude him and he pursues her. The ruffians attack and rob him, then decide to kill him. They smother him, but he will not die, and continues staring at the girl. They stab him; he does not fall or bleed. They hang him from a chandelier; it comes crashing down, and his body begins to glow with a greenish light. Finally, the girl feels some pity for this strange man. She embraces him, and her act of compassion releases him from the longing that has driven him. His wounds begin to bleed, and finally he dies.
The last of Bartók’s works for the stage, this pantomime ballet caused a moral scandal in Cologne, Germany where the work had its staged premiere in November 1926. Fellow Hungarian, the writer and dramatist Melchior Lengyel provided the premise for this salacious work that mixes exoticism, supernatural, and gritty Expressionist hedonism alongside the folk-inspired avant-garde of Bartók’s musical palate. One cannot help but think of the art works of Egon Schiele or Max Beckmann (and others later labeled as degenerate during National Socialism), or the ballet pantomimes of Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and the Ballets Russes to fully understand the zeitgeist characterized in Bartók’s work. Proper Bostonians seemed unphased by this difficult musical subtext.
Whirling chromatic-infused scales from the second violins open the work, later joined by the blaring cacophony of urban life depicted in the brass. Clarinet solos by William Hudgins depicted the sultry moves of the girl, luring the three men to the brothel; the burlesque mood was set. Orozco-Estrada maintained an expert sense of rhythmic, transitional, and almost pictorial flow in and out of lavishly orchestrated dance sequences that make up the main body of the concert suite. His conducting was at its best in this work. Woodwind and brass soloists perfectly suited the film noir feeling, particularly at climaxes which reached frightening affective potency and volume. Waltz rhythms lead to a climax as the girl relents and embraces the wounded Mandarin. The music then transitions to the frenzied, violent conclusion: immediate cheers and audience applause. Bartók’s devilishly difficult music was traversed with controlled virtuosity by Orozco-Estrada and the BSO, creating what can be described as a heavy-metal experience.
Georges Enescu’s beloved Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 followed as a programmed encore for conductor and orchestra. Orozco-Estrada signaled the call and response solos from Hudgins on clarinet and John Ferrillo on oboe senza baton, using only the lilt of his body. Listeners enjoyed lush and colorful string playing, highlighted by a piquant viola solo from Steven Ansell. This folk-music pastiche of dances gave this reviewer the impression of a synthesis between Tchaikovsky’s classically inspired high-Romanticism and the late-Romanticism of Liszt, not to mention the ethnomusicological folk studies of Bartók and Kodály. Orchestral color and various solos from the band (including a noteworthy, cheeky pop-goes-the-weasel exclamation from piccolo) were all whipped together by Orozco-Estrada leading as a dancer-conductor; this music is pure fun. The expectant result was naturally a well-deserved standing ovation.
This week’s program offers a wonderful musical variety that engages the intellect as well as the emotions. Orozco-Estrada sculpted his musical colleagues to great effect, weaving a convincing narrative through both plasticity in sound and incisive rhythmic drive. Total stylistic flexibility was on full display in this concert by both conductor and troupe. We hope the BSO brings Andrés Orozco-Estrada back for more concerts upon this immensely successful debut.
9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
Saturday night’s performance was not different from this review, but I would like to add a few thoughts. First, I cringe when I see the black speakers hanging at either side of the stage; Boston’s Symphony Hall does not require amplification! While I really enjoyed this conductor’s energy, I felt there was too much loud and fast playing, and not enough emphasis or contrast on the lyrical moments in this program. Orozco-Estrada is capable, but he is so physical (which the audience loves) and has such a huge beat, that nuances are often lost. The exception to this was the gorgeous playing of pianist Emmanuel Ax in the Mozart Bb piano concerto.
Comment by Bonnie Pomfret — October 16, 2022 at 10:23 am
I was hoping that Ax would do “Standchen” on Saturday as well. He didn’t, but he played an equally beautiful piece that stayed just at the edge of my being able to ID it. Can anyone tell me what it was?
Comment by edente — October 16, 2022 at 6:25 pm
edente, Ax played the Schubert/Liszt Der Muller und der Bach on Saturday
Comment by Nathan Trinkl — October 17, 2022 at 8:24 am
Comment by edente — October 17, 2022 at 10:04 am
We were fortunate to attend the Saturday night concert, and concur with nearly all of the comments of the reviewer. As regular subscribers, it seemed to us that the musicians enjoyed working with this exceptional conductor and newcomer to the Boston music scene. While I normally don’t prefer to see substantial gesticulations by a conductor, somehow what Mr. Orozco-Estrada did was pure fun to watch and indicated his clear intentions to his musicians, who responded with enthusiasm and conviction. I felt so even more when I saw him simply smile at the soloists without moving his body at the beginning of the Enescu Rhapsody- he knew they could do what needed to be done without guidance from him. And surely they did not disappoint him or us! This interpretation of Enescu was in marked contrast to this summer’s Vienna Philharmonic concert conducted by Mr. Nelsons. His tempi bordered on the lethargic, whereas Mr. Orozco-Estrada whipped up the pace almost to a frenzy. Somewhere in between, as in my favorite old recording of this great piece by Sergiu Commissione and the Baltimore Symphony seems about the best compromise. That being said, the overall impression of this concert was pure joy, and feeling it more than worth it to come to the Hall that night. It was fascinating to watch Mr. Orozco-Estrada provide exact performance cues to his players during the immensely complicated Bartok work, though this is truly a “signature piece” for the BSO that we have enjoyed many times before. I agree with the reviewer that I sure hope the management will engage this delightful, energetic young conductor again. Finally, Manny Ax’s encore, Schubert’s Der Muller und der Bach was played with such deep emotion and subtlety to make this brief piece, in my opinion, the high point of his appearance this past evening.
Comment by Jonathan Kleefield — October 17, 2022 at 12:16 pm
To Bonnie Pomfret:
Tony Fogg: “The BSO is not amplified for concerts, unless the score requires this. The Boston Pops Orchestra is rarely amplified. The speakers are there permanently for amplification of spoken word (pre-concert message, the Speakers’ Series, comments from the stage by composers, etc.).”
Jake Moerschel: “No amplification for the BSO unless necessitated by the programming.”
Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 17, 2022 at 2:51 pm
I’m glad to learn that Ax pulled more Schubert from his sleeve. I think the color of his Liszt lied arrangements was a perfect pairing for Mozart.
As for Orozco-Estrada, I agree with commenters here about his physical style in conducting. I did not emphasize this in my review, but there were moments when I found this to be a bit distracting from where I was seated relatively close to the stage. Perhaps, further away, this physicality was less distracting and more interesting to observe.
I’m sincerely curious if the effects of his conducting technique felt more compressed because of the nature of the BSO’s response time to his ictus; they appeared to play right on his beat. I know Orozco-Estrada best from his wonderful HR Sinfonie Orchester performances online; German orchestras play behind the beat, which allows for more elaborate musical communication.
Comment by Nicolas Sterner — October 17, 2022 at 7:50 pm
>> … the nature of the BSO’s response time to [Orozco-Estrad’s] ictus; they appeared to play right on his beat. … German orchestras play behind the beat, which allows for more elaborate musical communication.
I wonder if you might elaborate on the latter two claims you make.
A wonderfully frank resource on conducting and conductors (and an old friend), the veteran concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, has recently died, so curious I asked amateur orchestral musicians their takes.
“I’ve always understood it to be a characteristic of the conductor, not the orchestra. Something in a conductor’s style seems to communicate to everybody which type they are. I can tell you that out of perhaps 20 conductors, all trained and most of them professional at some level, not once did we encounter an instance where there was any confusion about what the conductor was doing. Orchestras -– ideally, anyway -– are like herds (which is the whole idea, of course), so it could be that the bulk of players fall in line with those who show early decisiveness. But at a minimum that would indicate an ability to shift fairly effortlessly among different types of conductors.”
“In the YouTube video version of Bernstein conducting Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the BSO (later 1970s?), he is before the beat consistently.”
“I have never heard a fellow amateur player make any comment about a conductor’s style. It’s never discussed, because nobody thinks anything of it, however it is.”
Relatedly, at the pro level, concertmaster Fleezanis said in a February interview, “When the ship starts to move, you’re there at the initial crash of the waves — but you also can’t be way ahead of the back of the boat. And you have to know where the timpani is going to place that beat, where first horn or trumpet are going to place it. You need to be hearing the whole score and acting as a second-in-command to the conductor. You need to understand all the possible interpretative ways the conductor can go at that moment, so you’re prepared to make a sharp left, or a gentle left. And you create that unification, that sense of ensemble, almost instantaneously.”
Comment by David Moran — October 18, 2022 at 1:41 am
Regarding an orchestra’s “response time”, I remember reading an interview with Erich Leinsdorf in which he said that the Berlin Philharmonic was used to playing slightly behind the conductor’s beat, whereas the Cleveland Orchestra’s response time was much shorter. Neither was considered better; it was simply something that the conductor had to adjust to.
As for Orozco-Estrada acrobatic podium style, I was reminded of William Steinberg’s comment about conductors: “The more they move around, the quieter I get.”
However, at last Thursday’s concert, I did not hear “too much loud and fast playing” or lack of nuance, as one commenter did. Which piece on the program was played too fast? Actually, the Tchaikovsky began with an unusually slow tempo for the introduction, creating a dark sense of foreboding that I had not heard before, and the rest of the piece was played at a standard tempo. Everything else on the program was played at typical speeds and volume levels, with plenty of inner detail audible and no lack of emphasis on the lyrical moments. And I loved hearing the Romanian Rhapsody (having just missed the BSO’s previous subscription performance)!
Perhaps Orozco-Estrada will become less acrobatic on the podium in future performances with the orchestra, but I thought he had a very successful evening.
Comment by George Hungerford — October 18, 2022 at 9:09 am
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