Orozco-Estrada debuted with the Symphony as a guest conductor in October 2012. It was an instant attraction for both sides. At the time, he was only in his late 30s, considered a relatively young conductor. Originally from Colombia, the music director was trained in Vienna at the 205-year-old Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst and had already worked with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi to great acclaim.
For the Houston Symphony, Orozco-Estrada embodied everything that a modern orchestra could ask for in a music director — a youthful sensibility, an approach steeped in tradition and a propensity for innovation. For Orozco-Estrada, the orchestra was both accomplished and hungry for more growth. Most importantly, it had the city’s full support. That next January, just three months after his debut, Orozco-Estrada was announced as the Houston Symphony’s new music director.
“Houston seemed to be an impressive city, a city that loved the arts,” Orozco-Estrada tells Houstonia in a recent phone interview.
In the beginning, he had the same goals for the Houston Symphony that he has for every new orchestra he has led: to maintain the orchestra’s sound and style, while simultaneously pushing the musicians to stretch artistically. Artistic development, as Orozco-Estrada understands it, is connected to happiness. “I think it’s important that we perform with lots of energy, lots of dignity and happiness. And by happiness, I mean not only for the audience, but for the musicians as well. I want everyone to enjoy every concert, every note.”
However, the Houston Symphony had some goals of its own, including a major commitment to increasing engagement with the city’s various communities. This desire to connect with the public led Orozco-Estrada to begin talking with audiences from the stage and discussing the works being performed. It was a practice that was unheard of with European orchestras. Surprisingly, he found he enjoyed it very much.
Throughout his tenure, Orozco-Estrada has collaborated with contemporary artists whose work reflects today and invites risk-taking in a traditional performance sphere.
The orchestra’s 2018 European tour was a milestone moment that sharpened its international profile. It was the first European tour for the Symphony in 20 years, and included stops in Germany, Poland and Austria. Audiences were exuberant and critics were profuse with their praise.
“We were representing not only the Houston Symphony, but the city of Houston, which we were very proud of,” Orozco-Estrada recalls. “The orchestra really rose to the occasion. That for me is a memory that fills me with happiness and pride. We were able to reach new heights on that tour — musically, emotionally, intellectually. And we maintained that excellence once we returned to Houston.”
In addition to a bustling program of live performances, the Symphony also recorded several albums and replaced a full third of its musicians to usher in new energy. Among those he hired was Korean violinist Yoonshin Song in the demanding position of concertmaster.
Despite the many successes in his tenure, Orozco-Estrada’s greatest challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the orchestra to suspend performances in March 2020.
Both Orozco-Estrada and orchestra members were determined to return to performing as quickly as possible. In fact, the Houston Symphony was one of the first orchestras in the country to resume live performances during the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, the Symphony returned with both live stream broadcasts and scaled down its in-person performances from 2,900 to as few as 150 people.
“Our swift return strengthened our relationship with our audience, not only our subscribers but we gained new listeners who were anxious for entertainment during the pandemic,” Orozco-Estrada says. “With that desire to perform, that energy and creativity, I think we went to new levels of professionalism and skill.”
Orozco-Estrada leaves the Houston Symphony a much stronger organization, with vigorous connections to a new diverse and varied audience. Thanks to him, the orchestra is energized and a slew of more youthful musicians has joined its ranks. Live broadcasts and chats from the stage are now commonplace. While Houston has much to thank him for, he insists that he’s grateful to the Symphony and the city for its support over the years.
“Thanks is too small a word to convey what I feel, really, but I want to say thank you for letting me explore new roads musically. And for letting me create music that was authentic, honest and heartfelt. Thank you for letting me express my musical ideas alongside an exemplary orchestra with a marvelous public that supported us. Thank you for your applause and your interest.”