News | Symphony gala welcomes new conductor with open arms

September 17, 2014

By Steven Brown | Houston Chronicle 

The Houston Symphony's audience didn't wait for Andrés Orozco-Estrada to conduct a note: A standing ovation greeted the orchestra's new music director as soon as he stepped onto the Jones Hall stage Saturday for the group's annual opening-night concert.

The Colombia-born conductor made a second big entrance later that night, after more than 500 of the orchestra's backers gathered for a gala dinner at The Corinthian. Summoned by executive director Mark Hanson, Orozco-Estrada and his wife, Julia Orozco-Estrada, appeared at the top of the grand staircase, then descended, looking happy and a bit bemused, as the Richard Brown Orchestra accompanied them with the festive promenade tune from Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

"It feels like being in the movies - like being the president," Orozco-Estrada said.

Saturday was Day 2 of Orozco-Estrada's inaugural weekend of concerts as the orchestra's 15th music director. On Friday, 8,000 people had turned out to hear him conduct a free concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre, and still more watched on television.

"I will never forget these moments," he said Saturday. "You have given me such a warm embrace. ... I'm full of dreams and big hopes for the Houston Symphony."

As chairs Barbara and Pat McCelvey welcomed the partygoers, Barbara McCelvey noted that the decorations and menu paid tribute to the conductor's South American origin. Sculpted birds on the tables and overheard sprang from the design of a gold art work in the pre-Columbian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The dinner included grilled radicchio salad with mango dressing, Asado-style beef tenderloin and, for dessert brandied mangoes with mango ice cream; additional treats included chocolate truffles and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, favorites of Orozco-Estrada's.

The guests included Colombian consul general Miguel Rafael López Méndez; British trumpeter Alison Balsam, the soloist in Saturday's concert; longtime Houston Symphony supporters Carol BosargeMargaret Alkek Williams and Mike Stude; Mark Stadnyk and Audrey and Brandon Cochran of the orchestra's Young Associates Council; Ralph Burch of ConocoPhillips, the concert sponsor; Sharon Adams of Houston First Corporation, another sponsor; and Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, who played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in the Miller theater concert.

The orchestra's leaders presented thank-you gifts to the members of the search committee that spent three years on the quest that led to Orozco-Estrada: musicians Ronald Holdman, Jennifer Owen and Brinton Averil Smith; board members Brett Busby and Robert Peiser; Barbara McCelvey of the Houston Symphony League; Robert Yekovich, dean of Rice University's Shepherd School of Music; and Hanson, Aurelie Desmarais and Steve Brosvik of the Houston Symphony staff.

Though Orozco-Estrada chatted amiably from the podium during Friday's concert, he let the music speak for itself Saturday. In Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, he and the orchestra provided a nimble, airy complement to trumpeter Balsom's sheen and grace. In Maurice Ravel's arrangement of "Pictures at an Exhibition," each episode emerged vividly as Orozco-Estrada savored the music's contrasts of color, line, texture and energy. Most striking of all: the woodwinds' hymn in "The Great Gate of Kiev," which began hushed, then gained urgency and fullness, as it might if sung by a fervent choir.

As the dinner wound down, Peiser said he thinks Orozco-Estrada embodies the Houston Symphony's future. What, Peiser asked, is the main enemy of progress?

The answer: a mirror. It presents a temptation to be pleased with what one sees, Peiser said, and hence complacent. The Houston Symphony has to avoid that.

"We're good," Peiser said. "But we're going to get better."