In a season filled with guest conductors, it was nice to head to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Thursday night with calm expectations for a pleasant evening, lead by RPO Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman. The program selected by Seaman included a massive Bruckner symphony, a Beethoven piano concerto, and a short Berlioz overture. In all, the audience left rewarded for its optimism.
Seaman was the music director of the RPO from 1998 to 2011, and is now its conductor laureate. He leads the RPO in one concert per year, otherwise traveling the globe as a guest conductor and teacher with more than 40 years of experience at the podium. In 2013, Seaman published "Inside Conducting," sharing his insights and experiences.
The primary work of the night was the Symphony No. 6 in A Major by Anton Bruckner (Austrian, 1824-1896). Bruckner is not a household name, though he should be. So much goes on through the orchestration; even in its most brooding passages, the pieces includes short, light, and airy motifs. Bruckner wrestles with the realms of spirituality with a constant reminder not to lose faith.
Seaman and the RPO have a way of pulling off these kinds of scores that makes an audience member feel as if she's never heard it before. Seaman is a master of tempo selection and he breathes deeply through long phrasing, much in the way that I thrilled at guest conductor Jun Märkl's interpretation of Mahler's "Titan Symphony" earlier this season. This level of interpretation entrances the audience.
And, again as with the Mahler, I pass out gold stars to those masters of the trumpet in the RPO brass section. Their tone was clean and clear, and their unison was exemplary. In terms of entrances and pulse, it simply doesn't get better than their execution.
Also on the program was the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19 (German, 1770-1827). I've put the composer's dates into this review because it's interesting to consider how much music evolved from Beethoven to Bruckner. The concert is worth attending for the juxtaposition of those two pieces alone.
The program notes indicate that the RPO first performed this Beethoven piano concerto with Glenn Gould at the keys, and I marveled at the thought of what that performance must have held for its audience. Unfortunately, this was indicative of where my sense of last night's performance came up short when listening to pianist Jon Kimura Parker. Parker is comfortable as a guest soloist and with the work, but, for me, it was missing a playfulness that I really like in some of Beethoven's works. This piano concerto is one that should evoke the high-handed humor of the court, even as it edges with sarcasm. A work like this should leave the audience feeling like it just watched opera, particularly at points where the piano lines play with instrument lines to create something akin to a competition of the witty and the vain.
Finally, the program started with a nine-minute "Roman Carnival Overture" by Hector Berlioz. From its opening, it was a pleasant reminder of Seaman's masterful selection of tempo and orchestration.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra repeats the program Saturday, March 8, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information visit the RPO website.