Last night the fireworks of Mahler’s Titan Symphony exploded in the Eastman Theater, raining showers of brilliant sparks over the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor Jun Märkl.
(OK, not literally. But it was surely an opening-night performance filled with enough drama to give me goosebumps and have me imagining fireworks.)
The RPO opened it’s 91st season last night with a thrilling performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major (“The Titan”), led by guest conductor Märkl. The hour-long, four movement symphony created by Mahler in 1889 is everything one could ask for in a symphony, from brilliant orchestration utilizing all of the instruments that filled the stage, to poignant melodies, to massive percussion from the largest drum to the smallest triangle.
Märkl knew what he wanted out of the work and the RPO responded. Märkl is a conductor who uses all four corners of that square called a “podium,” as he parried and lunged with every instrument on stage, shaping huge arcs of long lines and slicing each entrance and exit to make clean the many complex layers.
Having recently interviewed Märkl for City’s guide to the RPO 2013-14 guest conductors, the performance was not what I expected. From the interview, I had Märkl painted more as perhaps more of a philosopher than a conductor, perhaps even somewhat introspective in comparison to the other personalities in his class. But, Märkl’s humility masks his strength. In the final movement, in particular, where the sounds could be described as a battle between Poseidon and the seas, Märkl brought out the roar and the power of the music, while keeping it under his reins, even as he took the whole thing higher and higher into the Mahleresque protracted final chords. There was not a moment that Märkl lost control of the orchestra or let the tempo or dynamics sacrifice technical quality.
With that in mind, rewind into the first half of the program for the Mendelssohn Concerto in E-Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op.64 with guest soloist Jennifer Koh on violin. Several basic elements simply didn’t come together for this piece. Every violin is going to have a different sound quality, but Koh’s seemed particularly light for a 2,200-seat theater. Many passages were simply lost before reaching me, up in the far reaches of the balcony. This observation was magnified by Koh’s approach of playing to the conductor, as she simply took the lead for the work away from him. Given what Märkl demonstrated in the second half of the program with the Mahler, I would be interested to hear this work again with Märkl holding Koh to tempi that are about the delivery of the music to the audience, not simply speed for the sake of speed.
And a word, also, to the piece “New Era Dance” by Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960). Only six minutes in length, it’s a dense piece. Lots of musicians. Percussion and brass galore, and even some punctuated voice tones tossed in. A bit like “The Rumble” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Listed as composed in 1992, it’s particularly interesting to think of in the context of the times in which it was written.
Two gold stars to the bass and to the trumpets. In both the Mahler and the Kernis, these sections optimized a chance to shine.
The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, September 28, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater. Tickets cost $15-$82. Check the orchestra’s website for details.
You put a powerful black voice in front of a garage band you've got some unstoppable rock 'n' roll. Put Boston's bombastic blues belter Barrence Whitfield blasting in front of The Savages (including two of the original Savages) and it's like an operatic Howitzer. The band unleashed an incredible r&b-tinged garage barrage on the unsuspecting and the suspecting piled into Lovin' Cup Tuesday, September 10, as Whifield let fly with his gravel wail and primal scream.
Whitfield bounded around the place, dancing on tables, throwing tantrums on the floor and generally wreaking havoc with hits from his quiver like "Bloody Mary" and "Big Mamou," as well as songs off his new "Dig Thy Savage Soul." Original Savage, guitarist Peter Greenberg (ex-Lyres, ex-DMZ) added the comfortably loud rock 'n' roll treble to Whitfield's bluesy Tyrannosaurus trifle and trouble. One of the best all-out rock 'n' roll shows I've seen since, well, the last time Whitfield was in town. Unstoppable and unparalleled. EEEEEOWWW!!
Caught the Charlie Mitchell Group's happy hour set at Abilene Friday evening. The band is no doubt proficient chops-wise, but comes on with a casual hangback. More atmosphere than performance, which ain't always easy. I dug the group's casual elegance, especially its take on Monk's "Blue Monk." Tres cool.
Anonymous Willpower let go with a huge set (breaks are for pussies) later that night at the Dinosaur BBQ with a heart full of soul. The band rode the rollercoaster between Irma and Etta with an amazingly tight back beat. So tight, in fact, that it would've made Ike Turner slap himself. They wore the crowd out, up, and down. I dug Don Anonymous' parade-float head gear, I dug Suzie Willpower's vocal trips to church and the moon. Hell, I dug it all.
I'm getting a wee bit tired of copping to "Americana" and "roots-rock." Yet when I caught Dust & Bone's set at Lovin' Cup Saturday night, the band's casual lope and saunter called to mind The Band and even Dylan, and it doesn't get more Americana or roots-rock than that, does it? The three-guitar front end was surprisingly clear and cooperative. You could pick out the picking on all three. I liked it a lot. Dust & Bone warmed the boards for 5Head, which delivered a tight and fun, horns-a-plenty set of smart-assed ska. Bassist Steve Pizzuto sounds better with his pants on. Trust me.
You know, with the exception of a few bands like Deep Purple or The Apes (I'm sure there are more, but those two popped into my head first), I'm used to seeing and hearing keyboards and organs -- oh wait, I forgot Journey; you can't forget Journey -- played as a support instrument, or as a principal instrument that gets steamrolled by the guitars. Admittedly, a lot of my perspective is rooted in my past as a guitar player. Perhaps I've been remiss, maybe I've been missing out.
Friday night I saw Vinyl Orange Ottoman and I saw the light -- I heard it, too. It all started with the band's stage plot. The Monty's Krown Stage is abbreviated and a little springy, like a boxing ring. The palookas in VOO solved this problem by taking up space next to the stage, as well as on it. Keymeister JJ Stashiw's entire rig took up the whole floor directly stage left, and directly where I had parked my ass to dig the impending show. Consequently, as the band whirled and pumped and ground through its mid-tempo, nouveau blues, I got a double-dish helping of the keys mere feet away. It was incredible, and an incredible eye-opener. The band raged with an unstoppable fortitude that leaned on classic strains without relying solely upon them. It was familiar yet new -- and beautiful. Praise the lord, I have heard the light.
Following my Vinyl Orange epiphany, Heatseeker got up and cleared out the cobwebs and dancing girls in my head. It was a twin-Gibson, twin-stack attack all the way. The band has a positively brilliant tone: thick, thonic, and thunderous, yet agile. Float like a bearded butterfly sting like an SG turned up to 10.
I try really hard to keep an open mind, but I've been doing this critic thing for a while now and can kind of tell when I'm not going to enjoy a particular band. I've seen Ice Nine Kills before and was privy to the band's standard chugga-chugga-squeal guitars and the dramatic vocals, instructing the audience how to behave (i.e. make some noise, give it up for whoever, or make a circle pit). It all had struck me as predictable and uninspired.
So imagine my surprise when the band knocked me out Saturday night at Water Street Music Hall. The intro was full-on rock-star cool. The energy was genuine. Perhaps more emotion played into it, as it was the bass player's last gig (and yes, we were told to give it up for him), and the guitarist dragged his girlfriend up on stage, dropped down on one knee, and popped the question. She said yes. The crowd went nuts. And that time, nobody even had to tell them to do so.