Andres Orozco-Estrada, Music Director of the Houston Symphony
Photo: Werner Kmetitsch
The Houston Symphony is indebted to Hector Berlioz. Even during conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s first rehearsal of the French composer’s sumptuous Symphonie Fantastique almost a decade ago, it was clear to Brinton Averil Smith that the orchestra had found its next musical director in the hometown of Medellin, Colombia.
The orchestra’s principal cellist since 2005, Smith remembers brushing off the orchestra’s general manager at the time and telling him, “That’s going to be the guy.” Clarifying that he’s not normally ready to make such statements – especially after a rehearsal – he says today, “There was such a sense of excitement and electricity and the way you want the music to be. that is.”
Succeeding Hans Graf, Orozco-Estrada was appointed musical director of the orchestra in January 2013 and officially took the podium at the start of the 2014-15 season. His time in Houston included moving to Rice University and the University of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a much-loved European tour in the spring of 2018, and pivoting to live programming during the pandemic – which , due to Byzantine international travel regulations, kept Orozco-Estrada from directing in Houston for 19 months.
Before its tenure ends with next month’s performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, this weekend and next, the orchestra takes the time to salute its outgoing music director with “Andrés Fest: A Symphonic Celebration “. Taking on carnival tunes — Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, with pianists Emanuel Ax and Scott Holshouser, is the only piece scheduled for the three concerts — the opening weekend also includes pieces by Bernstein, Dvorak, Bruch and André Jolivet.
Orozco-Estrada also brought in several symphonic musicians as the festival’s featured soloists, including principal clarinet Mark Nuccio on Scott McAllister’s Led Zeppelin-inspired Black Dog and swing icon Artie Shaw’s clarinet concerto.
“I think he brought a very positive musical approach to the whole thing,” says Nuccio. “He brought a certain discipline to the orchestra, but he’s such a genuinely nice human being that he was able to do it in a way that I think kept a lot of enthusiasm.”
Nuccio applauds Orozco-Estrada’s overtures to Houston’s Spanish-speaking communities, as well as unorthodox programming choices like installing a dancer on stage during Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But perhaps the most crucial way music directors leave their mark on an orchestra is who they bring into the fold. According to symphony officials, Orozco-Estrada has now hired about a third of the symphony’s staff, including Nuccio himself and concertmaster Yoonshin Song.
Another is lead bassist Robin Kesselman, who just finished graduate school at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “Andrés is an extremely human leader in the best sense of the word, in that I feel like you can really trust who he is and he kind of leads with that sensitivity,” he says. .
When: 8 p.m. March 18-19; 2:30 p.m. March 20 (March 19 broadcast live)
Or: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street.
Details: $26 to $144 ($20 live stream); 713-224-7575; www.houstonsymphony.org
The upcoming festival is “definitely the two weeks of the whole season that I’ve been looking forward to the most,” adds Kesselman. “Whenever I speak of Andrés, I am filled with immense gratitude for everything he has given me personally, as well as for the orchestra.”
In our conversations, the musicians spoke of Orozco-Estrada with unreserved affection and admiration. Some have mentioned how he can be as shy and soft-spoken away from the podium as he is dynamic on stage. Although they are enthusiastic about new musical director Juraj Valčuha, they are happy that Orozco-Estrada is returning to his adopted city, where he has lived since 1997 and where he took the lead of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra l last fall.
But they will miss a leader whose relationship with his players borders on the supernatural. Audiences also latched onto Orozco-Estrada’s exuberant style and brilliant stage commentary.
“It’s hard not to get carried away with how he feels,” Smith says. “Even if you’re having a bad day, you’re tired, there’s such passion and excitement every time he’s on the podium that it’s contagious.”
“I love the energy it brings,” echoes principal oboist Jonathan Fischer. “If it’s just a cloudy Tuesday morning and we have to go to work, he comes bounding up and jumps onto the podium. He’s like a kid in a candy store. He just can’t wait to start rehearsal and he’s so excited about the music.
“He’s a very uplifting person to be around.” Fischer adds. “He is extremely positive, optimistic and full of energy.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.