Thursday night's performance by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was essentially two concerts in one: the Stravinsky and everything else. The Stravinsky was pure RPO. The rest? It was billed as an "Evening in Paris," but a better headline would be an "Evening in Russia."
Let's begin with the performance of the Suite from "The Firebird" (1919 revision). A ballet work in five parts, we last heard this performed by the RPO just two years ago. It was written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Guest conductor Fabien Gabel may have talked to me last summer about Stravinsky living for a time in Paris, but this work is Russian to the core.
With five pieces on the program, "The Firebird" was last, and snapped me back into Kodak Hall. The preceding works by Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and Ravel had not gone off particularly well. Then, abruptly, the entire RPO was fully present in its performance, attentive to the conductor, and making clean entrances. A full range of dynamics was provided. Ritardandos were expressive. The arcs of the themes were long and luscious.
The French composers? Had I not heard the Stravinsky, I might have said otherwise. But, with it in mind, my simple comment is that the RPO did not grasp the French composers, and possibly not the guest conductor.
It began with Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." Gabel had told me that for that piece, he can generally give the flute the freedom to begin and simply take the musician's inspiration from the opening lines for the interpretation of the work. Unfortunately, the opening did not put me into the French romantic "esprit." It felt thoughtful and measured, and that is where the whole piece, and the other French works, seemed to go.
The problem can most clearly be explained by the deliveries of the ends of phrases and the beginnings of the next beats. The French line holding a diminuendo and ritardando is a slow sigh, a beat of the heart of stillness; the inhale, and - then - the downbeat, and you go merrily on your way. You don't count Debussy. You breathe Debussy. The result of counting meant that entrances were smatterings of notes, instead of clean, spring air in a public garden in Paris.
Where it really created problems was for the Concerto No. 3 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61. It's a 30-minute work in three movements. Saint-Saëns, the composer, has such a distinct sound, and violinist Philippe Quint was the embodiment of it. Quint offered a range of bowing techniques, from the lightest possible touch on the highest notes, to the physical collision of the bow coming down and the violin coming up for heart-wrenching sounds. Both Quint and his 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius violin were impressive.
But the RPO was just not with Quint. It's not that the RPO is not capable of performing at Quint's level. The orchestra has certainly turned out a list of violin concertos both with RPO concertmaster Juliana Athayde, and with others like Augustin Hadelich, Stefan Jackiw, and Lara St. John. Last night, for whatever reason, the RPO's timing on the ends of phrases and entrances was off, and the orchestra was not anticipating Quint's phrasing, including his crescendo with accelerando. To circle again to the imagery of Paris, Quint's interpretation in certain lines and passages was the quickening of the French footfall upon seeing a friend across the way and being happy to greet them, as opposed to the Rochester manner in which we see someone and wave and keep going because the weather makes us want to get inside.
Just a quick head's up on the concert schedule. Do not miss the next RPO concert on February 6 and 8. The concert will feature some Gershwin and some Ellington, and also, Joseph Schwantner's "New Morning for the World - Daybreak of Freedom," which includes text from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It's the only February RPO concert.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the program again on Saturday, February 1, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. $15-$82. 454-2100, RPO.org.
Maybe it's a New Year's resolution. Maybe we want to dispel the myth that newspaper editors live in a bubble and aren't living, breathing people like everyone else. Or maybe we just want to share more music with the world.
Whatever it is, City is proud to launch a new weekly feature, "What We're Spinning," which every Tuesday will give you a personal look inside the brains, and music playlists, of various City editors and staff members. And, just because we love you, when possible, we'll even find the song for you. Are your ears ready?
Frank De Blase, Music writer: Reverend Horton Heat, "Rev"
Eric Rezsnyak, Features editor: Hunter Hayes, "S/T"
Christine Fien, News editor: Janis Joplin
Kate Stathis, Circulation manager: New Musik, "Anywhere"
Christine Kubarycz, advertising: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Matt DeTurck, art director/production manager: Pharrell Williams, "Happy"
Aubrey Berardini, designer: Pink Martini, "Splendor in the Grass"
Willie Clark, Music editor: Chuck Ragan, "Non Typical"
Mark Chamberlin, designer: John Legend, "All Of Me"
If the profane brilliance I've read in his Facebook posts is any indication, Steve Pavia is this town's Charles Bukowski: a tragic, self-effacing figure; a no-club lone wolf; a lonesome stranger with a lonesome guitar.
Pavia was a stalwart fixture on the scene back in the day, as they say. Many years ago (I'm figuring the late 1980's) Pavia --- as Stevie Boy --- cut a howlingly sinister disc called "I Get Dangerous," a lo-fi rockabilly 45 with Personal Effects alum Bernie Heveron on the dog-house bass.
After pulling a Houdini act that lasted something like 10 years, Pavia is back with his guitar, his witty sarcasm, and his literary cool. I caught him and his big orange guitar Friday night at Monty's Krown. He hit it raw and wired, but unfortunately couldn't derive the same pleasure the crowd did, because he couldn't hear what the crowd heard. What we heard was Pavia's percussive slash and chop beneath urgently growled vocals. It was immediate, primal, and Frigidaire cool. Nobody in the room cared if he couldn't hear it or not, just as long as they could.
The Mad Cow Tippers --- 1/3 Rochester, 2/3 Ithaca --- followed with some loud, twangin', and tasty cowpunk. The trio opened with the theme to "Peter Gunn," which easily has the coolest, most ominous bass line in music history. The joint was immediately turned into Mancini's Krown. The band was bare-boned, raw, and rough-edged. I'm not sure if they could hear, but we sure could.
[ DJ/Electronic ] Life in Color: Unleash Friday, April 11. Main Street Armory, 900 East Main St. $35-$72. 7 p.m. 232-3221. rochestermainstreetarmory.com
[ Pop/Rock ] Death Cab for Cutie Friday, May 23. CMAC, 3355 Marvin Sands Drive, Canandaigua. $25-$39.50. 7 p.m. 758-5330. cmacevents.com
[ Pop/Rock ] Dave Matthews Band Wednesday, June 11. Darien Lake PAC, 9993 Allegheny Rd., Darien Center. $40.50-$75. 7 p.m. 599-4641. darienlake.com
It was my first-ever trip to The Thirsty Turtle in Victor to dig some ska band called Some Ska Band, led by the stingy-brimmed man of the saxophone and poison pen, Charles Benoit. The place was packed and pleasant as the band rocked steady at a comfortable gallop and volume. More than a few in the happy-hour crowd left as new ska fans. How cool. How rude?
I've been watching Break of Reality grow from metal-inspired coffee-shop upstarts to a chamber quartet powerhouse that filled Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre Friday night with a noisily enthusiastic crowd. The group's talent is rivaled only by its humility and the no-frills kick in the ass it gives nu-classical music. The sound was mighty big and the drums were a bit muddy (I preferred when the drummer worked the hand drum as opposed to the full kit), but overall it was majestic.
Walked over to Montage Music Hall after that to dig a multi-band punk bill. Trophy Lungs was delivering the blast-furnace three-chord joy as we made it through the door. The guitarist had obviously mastered the dead-string bar-chord octave slash, because that's pretty much all he did. No matter, it still sounded cool. The Off-Season followed and spent a good amount of the show airborne; the kids gave it right back. That's how you wind up with a good show, jack.
Saturday I caught the air-tight slapstick ska (that's right, more ska) of 5 Head on the Record archive stage. The sound was magnificent, with the band's charge-up-San-Juan-Hill horn section over the skittery bop of the rest of the band. Made me wanna jump, jump like a mack daddy.
Thursday night's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert was the one to attend if you were in the mood for "big." Big, huge orchestra filling the stage.Big, 100-plus-voice choir on risers. And big-voiced soloists, front and center. It was a night of Beethoven's Ninth and a Boulanger Psalm.
The RPO was led by guest conductor Hugh Wolff. Wolff has recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies, and his interests range from Baroque to new compositions. Wolff's studies included conducting with Charles Bruck and composition with Olivier Messiaen. Having lived and studied in Paris was no doubt a contributing influence to Wolff's fine interpretation of the Boulanger.
The Rochester Oratorio Society shared the stage for the entire concert. The ROS is under the direction of Eric Townell. Founded in 1945, ROS pulls its voices from Rochester and a surrounding seven-county region. We would do well to realize that works like the Ninth Symphony can only be mounted because we have so much vocal talent in our region, making it both literally and financially possible.
Four soloists were featured: Kelley Nassief, soprano; Rebecca Ringle, mezzo-soprano; Vale Rideout, tenor; and Jan Opalach, baritone. Each one deserved the audience's applause, and I would welcome an opportunity hear each one in a solo recital so that I could sit back and enjoy the clear, warm sounds of each voice.
The first half of the program consisted of one work, Lili Boulanger's "Psalm 130, Du fond de l'abîme" ("Out of the Depths of the Abyss"). Eerie, unmistakably French, and hypnotic, it is a 30-minute work that must be seen live. If you've watched it on YouTube, you've completely missed the vibratory sensation that can only come through the live experience of the low register in which this work is couched. Low percussion. Long, low pulls across the bass and cello strings. And, the surprisingly low and resonant voice of mezzo-soprano Ringle. Ringle's tone was perfect for Psalm 130, and her emotional connection to the work was evident in every note.
I would expect that last night's audience turnout was enhanced by the billing of the Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, the only work on the second half of the program. Who doesn't love the Ninth? At more than an hour, I'm guessing that many in the audience were simply waiting for those special cello and bass notes signaling that we were coming toward the moment of the chorus bursting into the "Ode to Joy."
The performance of the Ninth Symphony won an immediate standing ovation, and so it should. Compliments across the board.
But, is it enough to mount a massive masterwork of classical music? Or should audiences still ask for more?
What felt to be lacking from go was a vision of the work as a whole - not as something singularly huge, but as something nuanced, surprising, and full of discoveries to be made. With a piece that long, the consistently high volume and tempo became anti-climactic. Where is there to go when a work is already so loud and so fast so often in the first movement, even though it is marked "Allegro ma no troppo, un poco maestoso" (meaning fast, but not too much so, and with a touch of majesty)? The dynamic tension is taken away by that approach, as surely as if a state dinner consists of course after course of luscious sachertorte, flown in from Vienna.
One of the most particular attributes of the RPO under current Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman is his ability to take the orchestra's string section to a level of volume that is so far beyond "piano" (soft) and with such clarity as to do the seemingly impossible. I've written high praise about this fantastic technique in more than one review over the years. But, last night, with the exception of passages consisting only of cello and bass, I would suggest that the RPO didn't go any softer than a mezzo piano. Bowing furiously in a work such as the Ninth Symphony is not the quest; it is achieving a full range of dynamics that allows for an enhanced, uniquely Beethoven, emotional experience.
I would also question, from a review standpoint, whether a season led entirely by guest conductors is by now presenting challenges for me on benchmarking performance. For critical basics like clean entrances and crisp attacks, is it a particular guest conductor or is it a progressing season without a consistent captain at the helm? Last night's orchestration was a packed stage, along with a guest chorus and four soloists, meaning that even for a full-time music director and conductor there would have been a critical mass of extra work to be done. All things considered, to my sensibilities, I'm going to put a question on whether large works can reasonably be programmed during a season of guest conductors coming off a protracted period of disquietude.
The RPO also performs the program Saturday, January 18, 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets cost $15-$92. For more information call 454-2100 or visit the website.
After successfully shoehorning myself into two shows of the three I sought to attend this weekend, I'm left with one burning question: are all these ugly people getting laid? No, I kid. My real question is: how do you draw a crowd in this town? Begging? Milking social media? Lap dances?
Friday night I thought I'd head over to Dub Land Underground for the Alexander Street joint's swan song, its ride into the sunset, its big adios. Apparently a million people had the same idea, as roughly 300 of them were piled up in line up the stairs and out to the street just to get in the door. I got to wondering -- if this wasn't the club's last night, would all those people have stormed the place? If they had done that routinely, would this have had to be the club's last night? It seemed too little, too late. It's a shame that Dub Land was the one of the last -- possibly the only -- remaining bastions of live music in this supposed entertainment neighborhood.
I swung over to Abilene, which provided a little more room with its leftover-from-happy-hour-crowd. They were all pumpin' and sweatin' to The Ghost Peppers' funky soul as the band stood on shaky ground and rocked it.
The Three Heads Brewing 3rd Annual Homegrown hootenanny at Lovin' Cup Saturday was totally off the hook as a ton of bands rocked a huge crowd. I suggest waiting a few months when it's warmer and move this event outside, as it was impossible to move indoors. I caught sets by Moho Collective, which didn't just play a set of music, but took listeners on a salaciously seething, sonic sojourn. The band's wonder and thrill was shared by the audience -- shaking asses, dropped jaws, and all of that. Subsoil followed and absolutely killed it; the horn section, the interwoven MCs, the funky bottom end all were just perfect. Best show I've seen in a while. That's how you get a crowd, sweetheart.
Ventured out in the cold in search of hot rock 'n' roll Friday night with the old lady and found what we were looking for at Lovin' Cup. Not even a year old, Sycamore Four was there putting four on the floor when we arrived. Though a little less breakneck than some of the members' previous outings -- Flour City Knuckleheads, The Spaces, The Enemy Ace -- this band still rocked raw and loose with plenty of tongue still in cheek and a ballsy bravado. That included dangerous stabs at Huey Lewis and Bob Seger, which I thought I could do without...until I caught myself driving home humming "Katmandu."
The wonderful thing about discussing, arguing , or evaluating music is that everyone is right. The Record Archive turned into a brilliant forum for this debate on Sunday as it presented a listening party for the highly anticipated new Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album "Give the People What They Want." The album was put on hold due to Jones' bout with cancer. But Jones is back and the album (due to land January 14) is absolutely brilliant. I listened to it front to back at least four times with a handful of music aficionados who dug the band's reserve as Jones wailed on top of the exquisite soul music. We debated the finer points and brought our own libraries into it, and even collectively gave Ike Turner a posthumous pardon. And you know what? We were all right, alright.