Thursday night's performance by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was essentially two concerts in one: the Stravinsky and everything else. The Stravinsky was pure RPO. The rest? It was billed as an "Evening in Paris," but a better headline would be an "Evening in Russia."
Let's begin with the performance of the Suite from "The Firebird" (1919 revision). A ballet work in five parts, we last heard this performed by the RPO just two years ago. It was written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Guest conductor Fabien Gabel may have talked to me last summer about Stravinsky living for a time in Paris, but this work is Russian to the core.
With five pieces on the program, "The Firebird" was last, and snapped me back into Kodak Hall. The preceding works by Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and Ravel had not gone off particularly well. Then, abruptly, the entire RPO was fully present in its performance, attentive to the conductor, and making clean entrances. A full range of dynamics was provided. Ritardandos were expressive. The arcs of the themes were long and luscious.
The French composers? Had I not heard the Stravinsky, I might have said otherwise. But, with it in mind, my simple comment is that the RPO did not grasp the French composers, and possibly not the guest conductor.
It began with Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." Gabel had told me that for that piece, he can generally give the flute the freedom to begin and simply take the musician's inspiration from the opening lines for the interpretation of the work. Unfortunately, the opening did not put me into the French romantic "esprit." It felt thoughtful and measured, and that is where the whole piece, and the other French works, seemed to go.
The problem can most clearly be explained by the deliveries of the ends of phrases and the beginnings of the next beats. The French line holding a diminuendo and ritardando is a slow sigh, a beat of the heart of stillness; the inhale, and - then - the downbeat, and you go merrily on your way. You don't count Debussy. You breathe Debussy. The result of counting meant that entrances were smatterings of notes, instead of clean, spring air in a public garden in Paris.
Where it really created problems was for the Concerto No. 3 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61. It's a 30-minute work in three movements. Saint-Saëns, the composer, has such a distinct sound, and violinist Philippe Quint was the embodiment of it. Quint offered a range of bowing techniques, from the lightest possible touch on the highest notes, to the physical collision of the bow coming down and the violin coming up for heart-wrenching sounds. Both Quint and his 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius violin were impressive.
But the RPO was just not with Quint. It's not that the RPO is not capable of performing at Quint's level. The orchestra has certainly turned out a list of violin concertos both with RPO concertmaster Juliana Athayde, and with others like Augustin Hadelich, Stefan Jackiw, and Lara St. John. Last night, for whatever reason, the RPO's timing on the ends of phrases and entrances was off, and the orchestra was not anticipating Quint's phrasing, including his crescendo with accelerando. To circle again to the imagery of Paris, Quint's interpretation in certain lines and passages was the quickening of the French footfall upon seeing a friend across the way and being happy to greet them, as opposed to the Rochester manner in which we see someone and wave and keep going because the weather makes us want to get inside.
Just a quick head's up on the concert schedule. Do not miss the next RPO concert on February 6 and 8. The concert will feature some Gershwin and some Ellington, and also, Joseph Schwantner's "New Morning for the World - Daybreak of Freedom," which includes text from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It's the only February RPO concert.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the program again on Saturday, February 1, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. $15-$82. 454-2100, RPO.org.