12 October 2018 | Wei-Huan Chen | Houston Chronicle
Andrés Orozco-Estrada moves like a 13-year-old at an arcade, with the podium as his personal “Dance Dance Revolution” machine. He jumps. His fingers quiver during a sustained note. His eyebrows shoot upward. He smiles and winces and makes other faces that are hard to see, but you desperately want to peek.
The maestro of the Houston Symphony is conducting the climax of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony during a recent Sunday afternoon to a near-capacity Jones Hall. Body moving with the nimbleness of a wiggling piece of string cheese, he shuffles across the tiny square where he stands to conduct, sometimes teetering near the edge, twisting his body so his hips bend one way and his shoulders lean the other.
The violins glissando. A glissando is a slide between notes, like what a trombone does. When a string player glissandos upwards, it sounds like the THX introduction movie theaters play before a feature begins. When they go down, it’s Hitchcock. But Orozco-Estrada understands this moment on a deeper level. His job, after all, is to know every part played by every instrument on every page of the two-hour concert, then convey his interpretation of tempo, dynamics, time signature and emotion.
He does it with one gesture. With one motion, he demands something from the violins that’s subtler than a sound system showcase and sweeter than a thriller soundtrack. While his right hand keeps the time, his left hand hovers. The hand opens, like Hamlet holding an invisible skull. Then he pulls down. His fingers curl into a near fist as his elbow drops, which makes his hip jut to the right.
What is he doing here? The violinist-turned-conductor is talking to the violins. He’s offering the most expedient, clearest nonverbal signal to motivate a specific manner of playing. He’s saying, “Lean in.”
When the violins glissando, they’re the answer to the question posed by his left hand. It’s like he’s squeezing the music out of the air. Then the moment is gone. His left hand is back to supporting the right hand with small, occasional jabs in the air. The violins play thousands of other notes that night. But for those two seconds, because of this little gesture that nobody asked for, the music feels just a little bit like magic.
There’s technically no need for a conductor in the modern world. When orchestras were invented, multiple instrumentalists had to play in unison for the orchestra to be loud enough to fill a large banquet hall. The conductor existed out of sheer technological necessity. Today, we have the means to make sounds louder or softer. We have mixers, microphones and producers.
That’s why it’s often difficult to understand what a conductor, a supposedly outdated job title, does. He or she waves his hands and keeps time. But doesn’t that just make the conductor a glorified — and often extremely well-paid — metronome?
The conductor is better compared to a movie director or a CEO. Asking what Orozco-Estrada, who is in his fifth year as music director of the Houston Symphony, does is like asking what Steve Jobs did. Nothing, and everything. The conductor is vision, personality, brand, leadership — vague words that are the accumulation of hundreds of micro-scale decisions and tasks. For example, look at his recent work with “Rite of Spring.”
Earlier this year, the Colombian native who also has Austrian citizenship conducted the masterwork for the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia Orchestra and asked the bassists to enter the stage through the audience aisle, carrying their instruments like sarcophagi. He had the musicians ruffle pieces of paper to simulate the sound of a bonfire. Taking inspiration from pre-Colombian mythology, he adapted Stravinsky’s 1913 classic to tell the story of a ritualistic sacrifice.
When he conducted “The Rite of Spring” in Houston earlier this year, there was a modern dancer onstage improvising to the music. A camera filmed her live, and a large projection screen displayed a psychedelic, distorted version of the dance that looked a bit like a ’90s PC screensaver. The dancer writhed on the ground. The audience, wearing 3-D glasses, saw her disembodied legs popping out of the screen.
It wasn’t what anyone expected, but it carried a bit of that Orozco-Estrada magic.
It’s Saturday morning the week after the Mahler concert and Orozco-Estrada is leading a rehearsal. It’s not a regular one. The maestro had the idea of breaking down the barrier between the symphony and the local music community, so he invited amateurs to play alongside symphony members for a half-day “master class.”
He wears a white, ruffled button-up shirt and matching sneakers. He has another “violin glissando”-type moment, but this time it’s with a cupped hand, which he vibrates close to his chest, while his mouth hangs agape. He wants the violins to be more indulgent, to be less stern.
“Pretend you’re alone,” he says, “practicing at home and doing all that crazy stuff.”
He isolates the flutes and strings. They play, and he claps.
“It’s an honest one,” he says of the applause. “You know what I mean. Sometimes it’s just for motivation. This time I mean it.”
The musicians chuckle, some nervously. They don’t have time to dwell on the moment. Orozco-Estrada is already flipping his score to another section. The orchestra will have to be ready to play, perfectly, in a few seconds, and if they aren’t perfect he will point it out.
“He doesn’t push to where people are upset, but he’s not too nice either,” says Matthew Roitstein, associate principal flute for the Houston Symphony. “If there’s a problem he’ll talk about it. We need to be on our game.”
Before a big entrance — the orchestra is rehearsing Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” — Orozco-Estrada makes a sharp, audible intake of breath. Sssssss! This forces the musicians to play with urgency. He’s running through the piece at a breakneck pace but stops when he hears a moment in which the bassists could be more dramatic.
He doesn’t use the words fortissimo or legato or rubato. Instead, the conductor asks them to play “like a giant, coming closer to us.” When the bassists play their low, thrumming notes, you can’t get that description out of your mind.
What Orozco-Estrada is doing here is giving the Houston Symphony something only a conductor can offer — a personality. Unless it’s a solo, orchestra members can’t have a unique flavor on a piece without the orchestra sounding cacophonous. An instrumentalist’s tendency is to be mechanical, to blend. Without a conductor to ask different sections to stand out, you end up with sonic “mush” — music without a personality.
“Rossini is making fun of everyone here,” Orozco-Estrada says. He’s talking about the big, loud first note and the soft, fast melody that follows. This is funny. Humor is contingent on surprise. Orozco-Estrada likes it when composers are surprising.
Ten minutes after the Mahler concert on Sunday afternoon, Orozco-Estrada looks exhausted. He’s sitting in a love seat in the symphony dressing room. The smile is gone. The jumps and jitters and jabs? He left those on the stage. He’s just changed into loose clothes. Leaning back, legs crossed, he slowly dabs at his damp forehead.
“Classical music needs to be more open,” he says. “To move, to try, to risk. Not just sitting, playing and leaving. For many pieces that’s more than enough.”
He compared the Sunday concert — the symphony’s third performance of the Mahler — to the first. On opening night, there had been an awkward moment. Mahler, in his score, requested a five-minute pause between movements. The orchestra sat in silence that first night, and so did the audience. It was an excruciating moment of dead air.
“It was too much sitting there and nothing happening other than the chorus coming in. People were tense,” Orozco-Estrada recalled. “‘Should we talk or not? Should we stay calm in silence?’ I turned to the audience and said, ‘You know, the reason for the five minutes is because Mahler asked for it.’”
And so, to avoid a repeat of dead air, Orozco-Estrada had a video play on the projection screen in which leaders from various faiths explained what resurrection means to them. This was to both entertain and enlighten the audience during the five minutes.
But video during a concert? “Wouldn’t that take the audience out of the experience?” a symphony leader had asked.
“We’ll try it. We won’t know if it works if we don’t,” Orozco-Estrada replied.
The conductor, like any classical musician, must always respect “the text.” If Mahler wanted five minutes of silence, you do the five minutes. Sometimes, the text doesn’t work because it was composed hundreds of years ago, in a different society, before the discovery of ADD and the invention of status feeds.
Therefore, Orozco-Estrada must nevertheless interrogate the text, the same way a pastor does with the Bible. He can’t innovate too much. Otherwise, there would be what he calls a minor “scandal.” He can’t have five-minute pauses confounding the public either. He must please both the casual symphony visitor and the hardcore classical devotee — this is a common conundrum for the conductor.
“Nowadays, we are used to action. We aren’t able to just listen,” he says. “We need action, moves, interaction. I don’t try to change the piece, but I try to use the piece to connect to the audience in a better way and in a modern way. In the way that people listen today.”
“It’s not about changing symphonies. It’s, ‘Keep going. Keep exploring.’ Some ideas of mine are too crazy or too expensive.”
He talks about his too-crazy, too-expensive idea to transform the symphony hall into a multimedia, 3-D experience in which musicians pop out, larger-than-life, depending on where the audience chooses to look.
“I’m trying to find those moments where the experience of classical music isn’t, with all due respect, as boring as it usually is, where you sit, you sleep a little bit, you clap at the end.
“Many times, the simplest ideas are the most valuable. Not trying to be too crazy, fancy or cool. But to do simple things, and to do it right.”
The dialogue is cut short. He has to catch a flight to Colombia, he’s told. Orozco-Estrada isn’t sweating anymore. He’s tired, but he’s ready to travel. His contract with Houston means he conducts seven weekends of concerts a year with the Houston Symphony. He also holds conducting positions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the hr-Sinfonieorchester in Berlin. In 2021, he’ll also become the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
An assistant beckons him. He sidles past musicians and technicians through the narrow hallway of Jones Hall’s backstage, toward the stage door, then out into the swampy heat. He’s taking his vision to another part of the world, to dance like a 13-year-old kid somewhere else, to make faces at the violins again, to create one more little scandal, with no one the wiser.