Confusion: What possible orchestral work includes saxophones and a full choir? This audience member was hard pressed to find the answer and it wasn't included in the Houston Symphony program for Saturday's sold-out performance featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Blame it on fogginess as a result of Super Bowl festivities and the mayhem of downtown Houston that provoked classical music listeners to rush to Jones Hall earlier than usual — because oh, the embarrassment of being late to Yo-Yo Ma when traffic bottlenecks were sure to ensue.
Once the brain haze had lifted, it became evident that the casually dressed troupe on risers weren't choristers waiting for music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada's downbeat. They were actually an overflow of audience members who paid more than $400 a ticket for prime seats at the one-night-only concert. And the saxes were for Gershwin's An American in Paris, which was part of the evening's eclectic program.
The hall was nearly packed even before the overture of the Gershwin number, charmed with the jazzy zest of 1920s Parisian life as seen by the American pianist-cum-composer during his time in the French capital. Maestro Orozco-Estrada was as animated as the music portrays — period car horn honks included. Light and frisky attitudes prevailed even in peppy high runs in the flutes. The provocative trumpet solo was everything the teasing melody should be — revealing but refined.
The question became: Did Houston Symphony staff know that the frantic scenes in the Gershwin would echo the energy of Super Bowl Houston when the work was selected for the program? Or was it a nonchalant nod to Yo-Yo Ma's background, a Chinese-American musician who was born in the City of Lights?
No sooner than Orozco-Estrada signaled the last chord of the rhythmic poem, some decided to jump to their feet and clap as though parents were hollering for their teenage kid in middle school band.
Good performance? Yes. But just another example of rumors that Houston audiences are overly generous with their appreciation.
The main event
It had been three years and a couple of months since Yo-Yo Ma last appeared with the Houston Symphony. Led by John Williams, that 2013 program saw the rock star cellist perform a very difficult concerto by the legendary film composer. The showpiece was written by Williams for Yo-Yo Ma at the suggestion of Seiji Ozawa. The concerto harnessed Yo-Yo Ma's extraordinary abilities — virtuosity, intimacy and subtle nuances in which no note is left unturned. But those craving something more traditionally melodic stayed hungry.
Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor Op. 104, B. 191 on this program was more than a classic meal. It was a multi-course feast with musical pairings that left listeners drunk with joy.
Let's put Dvorak's work in perspective. It's longer than most Beethoven symphonies. Longer or on par with Dvorak's larger works and Tchaikovsky's symphonies. For a composer who claimed that the cello had no innate solo qualities — that the low register sounded muddy and the upper strained — the breadth of the piece is surprising, each movement complete and satisfying on its own merit.
With what could be confused as Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, the work's opening is ominous and lengthy, introducing the winds as critical partners in the concerto. Here, the Houston Symphony shined as equals, ushering key themes with gentle sensitivity before Yo-Yo Ma took over the reigns with deliberate, conscientious musicianship. In his hands, the Dvorak takes the form of a bucolic tale that you know but have never heard before.
Yo-Yo Ma's syntax is clear. The journey is comfortingly familiar. There's a spoken, narrative quality to how he treats the melodic material that feels as though wisdom is being imparted upon you.
The 45-minute concerto ended before I was ready. After several curtain calls in which Yo-Yo Ma's congenial personality was on display alongside Orozco-Estrada's, the cellist offered Appalachia Waltz by Mark O'Connor without orchestra accompaniment as an encore. The sweet, introspective air — as though improvised next to a campfire — evinced what's most admired about the 61-year-old player: His ability to bring you into the most vulnerable parts of artistry.
That surely deserved a standing ovation. Go ahead, Houston. Go nuts.