Concert Review: RPO season opener

The "Nordic" Symphony and soloist wow, but other choices baffle our critic

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The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 90th season on Thursday night with all the fanfare of an opening day of a major-league sports season. The orchestra sported red carnations. Maestro Arild Remmereit led the RPO and the audience in the singing of the national anthem. And Remmereit offered play calls about pieces -- several of them taken from the RPO's first-ever season -- and he even introduced the guest artist, violinist James Ehnes.

All the noise aside, it was an interesting program and performance.

The star of the concert was the second piece on the program, the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 21 (the "Nordic Symphony") by American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981). This work made its American debut with the RPO in 1923, under the baton of the composer himself. According to the program notes, George Eastman then appointed Hanson as director of the Eastman School of Music, where Hanson went on to have a 40-year career. Among his accolades, Hanson won a Pulitzer Prize (1944) and a Peabody Award (1946).

The RPO performance of the Hanson symphony reflected the kind of programming and craftsmanship that could organically take the RPO to sell-out concerts. The orchestra can be a full-bodied instrument with a power and depth that far exceeds symphonias, ensembles, quintets, quartets, and ad hocs. Hanson clearly understood how to write a score that would allow an audience to receive the full experience of going to hear an orchestra, particularly one with as much talent as the RPO.

Unfortunately, beyond that piece, I had concerns about Remmereit's programming. Remmereit arrived at the RPO in 2011 with an agenda of featuring works by women composers, lesser known works, Mahler, and more. Indeed, on last night's program was the "Celebration Overture" by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), who would fit categories of living composer, woman composer, and lesser-known composer. But, beyond the title, the piece itself was far from a celebration. The composition itself plodded with war-like shadows, and felt far from a rousing opening.

I experienced similar questions in the second half of the concert. The "Tam o'Shanter" is a Scherzo based on a poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns about a man coming across a group of witches by night ("Wi tippeny, we fear nae evil/Wi usquabae, we'll face the devil!"). The piece was composed by Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), and was performed by the RPO in 1924 with the composer as conductor. This composition, too, felt disjointed, and needing either a dramatic recitation of the poem or a program that situated it among works of a companion style.

And then there was the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), featuring guest violinist James Ehnes. Ehnes, performing on the "Marsick" Stradivarius of 1715, played a clean, light, and, at times, delicate line. The concerto showcased the violin from beginning to end, leaving the orchestra as almost a back-up band, while melodies and flashy bits of trills, runs, and leaps were near all within Ehnes' capable hands.

I take no issue with the expertise of the musicians of the RPO. Indeed, my opinion remains that everyone in the greater Rochester area should attend at least one concert per season, regardless whether he or she is a classical virgin or a self-proclaimed aficionado. 

A symphony does not have to find itself restricted to, say, a Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in order to appeal to the masses. But, it comes up a bit short of what I know is possible if the concert contains works less able to showcase the RPO's enormous talent than, for example, last night's magnificent Hanson's "Nordic Symphony" or last season's outstanding Violin Concerto, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber -- both of which I would argue easily satisfy my desire for the full orchestral experience along with Remmereit's goal to perform lesser-known works.

The RPO will perform the program again Saturday, October 6, at 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit www.RPO.org.

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