While I'm generally not one to subscribe to the applause-o-meter of an audience, Thursday night's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert started with a quieter-than-usual opening clap level and escalated with each performance into a rousing standing ovation by the concert's conclusion. Guest conductor Andreas Delfs and the RPO certainly woke up the audience with rousing and colorful performances of Smetana, Persichetti, and Dvořak.
Every RPO season sees several guest conductors, and next season the orchestra will be led exclusively by guests at the podium. As someone who attends nearly every RPO concert, what has become particularly interesting is that each guest conductor elicits a different sound from the orchestra. Last night's Dvořak performance had me thinking back to guest conductor Matthias Bamert's RPO sound for the Franck "Symphony in d-minor" in October 2012, and the Persichetti performance had me thinking back to guest conductor Jeff Tyzik's RPO sound for "Spirits of Tuol Sleng" from his "Images" suite in November of last year.
With the right conductor, the RPO has a way of pouring itself into works with complex shapes and seemingly abstract wanderings, and delivering authentic interpretations with emotional impact. Last night, Delfs' interpretation of the Persichetti was nothing short of brilliant. The "Concerto for English Horn and String Orchestra, Op. 137" was haunting and sad, filled with strange intervals, improvisation-like note runs, and a persistent character that refused to yield to a happy, major resolution of all of its woes.
Highlighted on the English horn was RPO musician Anna Steltenpohl, who was the perfect compliment to Persichetti's notes and Delfs' interpretation. Steltenpohl's technical abilities were vast. She made every note important, constantly projecting, even the lowest tones and in the most pianissimo dynamic.
The RPO string section is routinely great. Combined with Delfs at the baton and Steltenpohl at the English horn in Persichetti's complex work, audience members seriously had to think about canceling Delfs outbound flight to leave Rochester.
The big work of the night was Antonin Dvořak's "Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88," a work in four movements that totaled approximately 36 minutes. We really are getting spoiled at the amount of Dvořak played by the RPO, and at this level of quality. Even so, I actually cheered in my seat at the performance of the first movement, the "Allegro con brio" (briskly, with brilliance/sparkle). Every tempo transition was smooth and natural. Every phrase was finished before moving on into the next one. The color and style brought forth the meaning of the work.
The second movement, the "Adagio," did not quite reach its potential, but I'll bet it will Saturday night. Thursday night, it came off a bit robust for the beauty of its melody and did not seem to have a clear relationship to the first movement. But then, after the trumpets sounded four repeated notes and the orchestra took the rest, there was the sound of the entrance of the orchestra that I wanted at the beginning of the movement. Indeed, this entrance literally enhanced the earlier beauty created at the opening of the program during Smetana's "The Mouldau," No. 2 from Má vlast (My Homeland).
The ends of the second and third movements ("Allegretto grazioso") needed to be as clean as the other endings. The first few bars of the third movement seemed unsettled as to tempo. But these details aside, as soon as the glorious sounds of the trumpets opened the fourth movement, the "Allegro ma non troppo," Delfs and the RPO delivered in great form, building to a dramatic conclusion of a concert well worth attending.
The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, March 23, at 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit the RPO website.