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Classical review: RPO’s 2017-18 season opener

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If you’re going to open a symphony orchestra season, you may as well open it with a dazzling flourish or two. Richard Strauss’s tone poem, “Don Juan,” begins with one of the greatest opening salvoes in the orchestral repertoire, a hurtling rocket of strings and brass. When Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra leaped into this famous — and famously difficult — piece to begin the first concert of its 2017-18 season, it was immediately clear that they would add another to its list of recent top-notch Strauss performances.

The strings were weighty and precise, tempos were well-judged, and the energy level was expertly maintained. Sections of the music that could be brassy and frantic always had just a hint of reserve; later on, a well-matched horn section sang out the work’s most famous theme in unison. Stare seemed to agree with the composer’s conception of the prolific lover as a truly romantic figure. Strauss’s evocation of Don Juan’s death in a duel is nothing like his fiery descent into hell in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; it’s more of a quick fade and a sudden existential shiver. Not bad for a 25-year-old composer.

Another dazzling flourish opens Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto: a famous timpani roll, followed by an equally familiar swoop from the top to the bottom of the keyboard. It announces a grand virtuoso showpiece, but its least impressive moments are its showiest, particularly the tinselly cadenzas for the soloist. However, while the Grieg Concerto may not be the greatest ever written, it’s still one of the most tuneful. When the virtuoso temperature cools a bit, the composer offers memorable melodies in the style of his “Lyric Pieces.” These are the real reason this concerto is such a beloved work.

Pianist Inon Barnatan. - PHOTO BY MARCO BORGGREVE
  • PHOTO BY MARCO BORGGREVE
  • Pianist Inon Barnatan.

I wonder if the soloist — the Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, making his RPO debut — and Stare would agree: they seemed to take more pleasure in exploring this concerto’s verdant valleys than its mountain peaks. The attention-getting opening, for example, was followed by a delicately inflected account of the first theme and its development. The constant interplay of pianist, conductor, and orchestra in this performance was a pleasure to watch.

Barnatan, for all his delicacy and attention to detail, had absolutely no trouble with the virtuoso bits; he has a wonderful technique and a sound that can be huge but is never overly percussive. This was an engaging performance of a warhorse, and the audience loved it.

For a short second half, Stare conducted (and occasionally danced) excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet “Cinderella,” performed by the orchestra for the first time. This is late-Prokofiev, first performed in 1945, and the music tells us that the composer found serious emotions in the familiar story; the music is nearly as dramatic as his more famous score for “Romeo and Juliet.”

This music also has an arresting opening, if not nearly as famous an opening as “Don Juan” or the Grieg Piano Concerto. The lyrical Introduction could almost be mistaken for the first movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony (also first performed in 1945), which is hardly lighthearted music. “Cinderella’s Waltz” has a sinister, sardonic edge, and the striking of midnight, evoked by growling brass and low strings, a swooping harp, shrieking piccolo, and slamming percussion, is downright scary.

The orchestration throughout is heavy but spectacular, enhanced by colorful solo wind and percussion writing that gives the xylophone and glockenspiel a workout. Stare and the RPO gave a deft, charming reading, across a little less than a half-hour, to this vivid, strangely affecting music; I would happily have listened to a half-hour more.

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