Thursday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed under the fourth guest conductor of the season, Christoph Campestrini, in a performance that included orchestral works by Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky and a piano concerto by Mozart that featured pianist Barry Snyder. Russian composers have the ability to take you with them as they rake their souls across the coals of hell. Unfortunately, I found the performance Thursday night only lukewarm. Both the Stravinsky and the Tchaikovsky suffered from a lack of differentiation from each other, and from Mozart.
The Stravinsky work was Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la fée" ("The Fairy's Kiss"), a suite in four parts (1949 version). "The Fairy's Kiss" is based on the "The Ice Maiden" by Hans Christian Andersen. It is a story with a terrifically dark underside. The kiss in question is bestowed by a fairy, impersonating the true love of a young man (while his true love is off putting on her wedding dress, no less), which locks him into the Land of Eternal Dwelling. This is not a fairy bringing glittery good wishes, but rather one harboring a wicked selfishness.
Stravinsky's score is at once brilliant and tricky; there are all sorts of pop-up solos throughout the wind and the brass instruments. The solo lines and phrases serve as a variety of characters in this work -- it was originally conceived as a ballet -- and give an opportunity to keep the audience on its toes, almost if wondering, "Who did that?"
The performance Thursday, unfortunately, was missing both the dark undertone and the quirky bits and bobs that not only make this a unique score, but also make it a work by Stravinsky. When I had interviewed Campestrini back in August for our article profiling all of the guest conductors for the RPO's 2013-14 season, he said, "This program asks what is necessary for any performance: the stylistic variety of each requires a totally different approach." Perhaps that can bear into the baton for Saturday night's performance.
Likewise, the Tchaikovsky simply didn't take me into the heartland of Mother Russia. There is an essential emotional component to the Russian masters that, if not captured, can almost leave a work a bit flat. Perhaps the best way I can articulate it is this: the musicians' backs rarely left their chairs. By contrast, when guest conductor Jun Märkl lead the RPO in Mahler's Titan Symphony on September 28, the musicians practically left their seats and took off -- metaphorically speaking -- with the music. The RPO is an incredibly talented group of musicians and can be pushed much further and harder to elicit a stirring interpretation of this work.
So what then of Herr Mozart? Dankeschön, Herr Snyder und Herr Campestrini. Snyder's touch was clean on a piano and the sound was clear. The tempos were nicely selected. And the variation of tone among dynamic markings felt true to the particular performance. While it is true that my heart lies in the deep bass rumblings of what one might refer to as "the war horse competition concertos," I hope that the RPO will continue to bring us the less-frequently performed piano concertos. Mozart, in particular, does have this knack for a surprisingly satisfying impact upon the audience, while fooling us into thinking his compositions are oh-so-simple.
The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, November 9, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Ticket cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit rpo.org.