Concert Review: RPO's Debussy at 150

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Thursday night's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert included the orchestra's tribute for the 150-year celebration of French composer Claude Debussy, along with a symphony by Belgian composer C├ęsar Franck.

First up was the "Petite Suite" (the "Little Suite") of Claude Debussy, the master of our romantic hearts. A lovely 15-minute piece, "Petite Suite" was everything one could hope to hear in a work for small orchestra: a wide range of dynamics, gentle tempi, and enough color to evoke imagery in every note. The performance reminded me of just how pleasant it can be to attend the symphony.

Next was Debussy's "Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra," a work in two movements, with guest soloist Stefan Arnold at the piano. Let me preface my remarks by saying that I caught Arnold's radio interview with WXXI's Julia Figueras, and Arnold's enthusiasm for the work made me curious. In the same interview the guest conductor, Matthias Bamert, said he had not previously conducted the work. Arnold indicated he had performed it several times. I will admit that I was hoping the performance would be an introduction to a lesser-known work for piano and orchestra, like my experience discovering my life-long loves of Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Fantasy" and his "Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major."

Regretfully, I cannot say that I loved either the Debussy composition or the Arnold interpretation. The program notes indicated that Debussy himself, "...didn't permit it to be performed or published during his lifetime," that he completed two versions of the work 20 years apart, and, as per Debussy, "...to treat the orchestra differently, otherwise you end up with a slightly ridiculous battle between piano and orchestra."

So, while taking notes during the first movement, "Andante ma non troppo" ("fast, but not so much so"), I had to pull back to use both my ears and my eyes to expend the energy necessary to try to pick out the piano, and to figure out whether Debussy had scored an executable plan for the instrument.

As I started to develop a theory for how a musician might approach the rather ambiguous role Debussy gave to the piano, I then shifted to questions of Arnold's theory of interpretation. Even after the rest of the first movement, and through the second movement marked "Lento e molto espressivo - Allegro molto" ("slowly with much expression - with all due speed"), I could not find Arnold's point of view.

The second half of the program was a fine performance of Cesar Franck's "Symphony in d minor." The piece included three movements and was approximately 40 minutes long. Guest conductor Bamert had a mature understanding of the work. Franck's orchestration was well suited to the RPO, most especially in the first movement's "Lento" ("slow") section. The repetition of viola, cello, and bass in a melody that dipped down, even as it climbed higher and higher, made for a strong union, and then the power of the violins essentially co-opting the stage flooded my emotions.

Special kudos also for the big, lush build-up to the final notes of the symphony's third movement, "Allegro non troppo" ("fast, but not so much so"). The pacing was superbly matched to the dynamic, and Bamert delivered a magnificent experience strongly reminiscent of the grandeur of the ending of Mussorgsky's "The Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition."

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will repeat the program Saturday, October 27, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets cost $15-$92. For more information call 454-2100 or visit the RPO website.

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