Concert Review: RPO's Mahler, Grieg, Nakamatsu


The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Musical Director Arild Remmereit, spared no expense last night to pack the stage of Kodak Hall to perform Mahler's Fifth Symphony. By my count there were 26 violins, nine violas, eight cellos, eight bass, harp, seven French horns, four trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, six oboes, three clarinets, four flutes, and five percussionists. The Mahler, particularly in contrast to the pairing to the smaller, lighter Grieg Piano Concerto, demonstrated the extreme range of dynamics available from the RPO.

The Mahler was every bit as dark and heavy as the composer is known to be. The program notes include a quote from Mahler (who was born in Bohemia in 1860) to a friend about the symphony, including the statement, "Neither romantic nor mystical elements belong in it, it's merely the expression of unparalleled power, that of a man in the full light of day who has reached the climax of his life." A funny description for a piece more than an hour in length, considering that the first two movements feel sufficiently tortured to leave one praying for the brief flashes of major keys and simple resolutions.

The highlight of Thursday's Mahler performance was the fourth movement. Marked "Adagietto, sehr langsam" (program-noted as "very slowly"), these notes could have been written expressly for the RPO. I have previously said that the string section of the RPO is the finest there is, and, through this movement, the strings caressed every note as if it were their last. By the time the RPO reached the final two notes of the movement, I wanted nothing more than 30 seconds of silence in which to fully appreciate the beauty of the finish.

While the Mahler was the big work of the night, my own tastes favored the Grieg with guest artist Jon Nakamatsu at the piano. Nakamatsu's rendition of Grieg's cadenza in the first movement was positively brilliant, as clean and clear as this Norwegian composer's style requires. The third movement showcased Nakamatsu's personality and, as technically challenging as the piece becomes, brought smile after smile to Nakamatsu's face. When as seasoned a performer as Nakamatsu can surrender himself to the music without having to think about it, he gives the audience a whole new depth of understanding of the work.

However, I do have two remarks about the performance. First -- and I've said this before relative to other pianists -- mezzo-piano to piano passages tend to lose the left hand in the keyboard somewhere around middle C, descending approximately two octaves. Acoustics where I sit in the upper left balcony? Temperament of the piano? Something to be conscious of, because it can leave the right hand sounding unsupported.

Also, throughout the first movement, with every character change, there was a split-second rushing, as if the final beat of the prior measure was short-changed by perhaps as little as a sixteenth. The oddity about this recurrence was my question whether the opening tempo hadn't dragged just a touch, as compared to how the movement developed and ended, once the pianist and orchestra had melded themselves into a single, working team.

Once again, an excellent program that is a credit to the musicians of our RPO.

Don't forget that if you're looking for an earlier-in-the-day, lighter version of things, you can hear Remmereit, Nakamatsu, and several musicians of the RPO at Hochstein School of Music and Dance on Sunday, October 21, at 2 p.m. Tickets available through the RPO website or at the door.

The RPO repeats the program Saturday, October 20, at 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $19-$92. For more information visit the website or call 454-2100.