CONCERT REVIEW: RPO “Pictures at an Exhibition”

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The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra brought down the house Thursday night for its final program of the season. The strategy of ending with "Pictures at an Exhibition" was brilliant. How can you fail to excite the audience when the final moments of "The Great Gate of Kiev" involve huge, loud sounds, including chimes and drums and every instrument performing a great score, composed by Russian Modest Mussorgsky and arranged by Frenchman Maurice Ravel?

The orchestration for "Pictures" takes full advantage of a wide range of instruments, and is a perfect selection to exploit the enormous talent of the RPO. Certain sections were true reflections of the intended character of the 10 vignettes, particularly "Gnomus," "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells," "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle," and "Limoges." The score works its way through 10 sections with a primary theme that comes and goes, modulates into different keys, all but falls apart, and then comes roaring back in the final "The Great Gate of Kiev."

What I have found curious about this work over the years is the surprising variation of tempi selected by conductors and pianists for the "Introduction," wherein the piece's main theme begins. The work is also an important part of piano repertoire, so add that dimension to the opening-tempo debate. The range goes from a fairly stately and regal tempo to the brisk stride used Thursday by conductor Arild Remmereit.

Concerning the opening tempo, my comment is this: when a single piano is being used, there is so much less sound being created, so arguably, the musicians should be able to push through the notes and create the dense and heavy sound without muddle or blur. For the orchestra, especially one that creates as rich a sound as the RPO, I would have been more interested to hear a tempo that reflected its title, "Promenade," allowing the sound to travel through the hall, the way one would take an unhurried walk through a park on a Sunday afternoon.

Starting with a promenade-like approach would allow the entirety of "Pictures" to bring forth a wider range of dynamics more and less than the original promenade, as well as a stronger contrast to the final section, in terms of both tempo and dynamics.

Also, the tempo of "Il vecchio castello" ("The Old Castle") might have been more effective had it been slowed down, to better evoke the footfall of approaching a musty old castle in the shroud of fog. A majestic opening and the slow depth of "Il vecchio castello" would then create the deeper contrast which would really punch the already appropriately brisk sections like "Tuileries" and "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells." In a piece like "Exhibition," a conductor cannot give enough thought to the inter-relationships of the sections, and the way the theme is strung out across the whole work.

In the first half of Thursday night's program we heard "Caution Ahead - Guard Rail Out" by American composer Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940) and "Two Paths: A Dedication to Mary and Martha" by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931). These two works made for an interesting pairing, and not just because both were written by living women composers. There was a very distinct, unsettling quality to the works created by arrhythmias, unique sounds like the bowing of the frame of the vibraphone, and a tendency toward the lowest and highest of notes in close proximity.

If you attend Saturday night's concert, in place of the Gubaidulina work there will be a second world premiere of a viola concerto by American composer Olly Wilson (b. 1937). (The Brouwer work on the program was also a world premiere, one commissioned by the RPO.)

This season was Arild Remmereit's first as conductor and music director with the RPO. It has also been a season full of new programming, including Thursday-Saturday concert pairings with different works from one night to the next, Friday night concerts, multiple works by female composers, multiple works by living composers, art shows on concert nights, poetry readings in between performance works, and even a contest to create cover art for programs. Even as the season ends, I would imagine that now the analysis begins as to revenues versus applause, and whether these variations attracted ticket sales and donors.

If I have any parting comment on the season it is this: there shouldn't be an empty seat in the house for RPO concerts. Our philharmonic is an exceptional treasure, and one that deserves the community's support. I will state my case through the words of a friend who got to last night's concert in time to hear the second half: "I will never listen to a recorded version of that piece again - it was so amazing to hear it live!" Amen to that. Now go buy your season tickets for 2012-2013.

The RPO will perform the program again -- with one substitution -- on Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m. in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre (60 Gibbs St.) For more information or tickets visit the website.

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