Friday, October 18, 2013

CONCERT REVIEW: Brahms, Bartók, and Higdon at the RPO under Gueller

Posted By on Fri, Oct 18, 2013 at 9:43 AM

Here's the thing about classical music: whether or not it features your favorite composer, a live performance of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is always worth the ticket price. Hidgon -- who is that? Bartók -- inaccessible? Brahms -- a bit melancholy? And, who is guest conductor Bernhard Gueller? My response is simple: get yourself to Saturday night's repeat concert and all your questions will be answered.

Let me start with the question you didn't ask, which is: How was pianist Jonathan Biss on Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15. Biss played as if he had four hands, equally capable of featuring an SATB line. Pianists refer to this as "voicing," and it's the idea that every note has its place relative to the melody, which is generally found in the high notes of the right hand. Arguably, every concert pianist should be able to at least voice the melody and the bass line running in the lower notes of the left hand. In truth, it isn't a simple skill and many a pianist falls down on just these two parts of the four parts of notes running around two hands.

In order to achieve this magnificent four-part voicing, Biss not only has to be able to play, but also to hear. A certain amount is technique, but an equal part is listening. He also has an outstanding ability to end a phrase. I am often disappointed by the arc of a romantic line that fails to exhale the final note or notes of the phrase. We don't get this gift that often from pianists, especially those performing piano concertos with orchestra, because it is high art for the pianist to be able hear that relationship between each note as it starts to fall away and then to be able to technically deliver just the perfect amount of pressure upon the keys at just the right moment to deliver the romantic expression.

This Brahms piano concerto was written over the course of 11 years, according to the program notes, starting as a sonata for two pianos. Brahms himself was at the piano when it debuted and at subsequent performances. There were many a passage for solo piano in this piano concerto, and Biss consistently delivered on his own and with the orchestra.

Gueller and the RPO also delivered the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra in the authentic style of the composer. Moody, disquieting, bordering on eerie. As compared to the heart-given phrasing of Brahms, Bartók has always felt to me a composer who was unable to exist in a major key. In the fourth movement, even when it was a little lighter with some pretty, vibrant passages, Gueller brought out that droll and harsh Bartók attack. According to the program notes, this bit I seized upon was actually taken by Bartók from a Shostakovich symphony, which Bartók intensely disliked and was, in fact, then mocking with his own notes.

American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) wrote "City Scape" as "a metropolitan sound picture written in orchestral tones." It was indeed quite vivid, reminding me of 1950's reels, featuring bright, shiny cars and women in white gloves walking with purpose, the pulse of big steel captured in tall smokestacks on the horizon. "SkyLine" is just one of three movements from the work, and it is unfortunate with so few women composers on this year's programs that we could not hear the entire work.

The RPO will repeat this program Saturday, October 19, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. $15-$82. 454-2100, RPO.org.

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