If you love Rachmaninoff even half as much as I do, you are going to love the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's delivery of his Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, led by guest conductor Junichi Hirokami. This week's concert offering of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra packs in nearly an hour of Rachmaninoff in its second half, and works by German composers Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith into the first. Hirokami, along with Erik Behr on oboe for the Strauss concerto, demonstrates how to provide a thoroughly enjoyable classical concert at the Eastman Theater.
Let's start with the Rachmaninoff. The performance was of the complete score, unedited to fit some kind of time constraint, and it was placed in its own half. As soon as the RPO began to play, I had such an unhurried feeling that for the next hour - I could simply sit back and be taken away. No smart phone. No work deadlines. Nothing but the live performance, already deep into the bass and with the promise of a fiery, percussion-filled ending to come.
The gold-star moment came as the RPO slid ever so quietly off and faded away at the end of the Adagio movement. The phrasing and execution of that passage was divine. It was a demonstration of a key feature of the music of Rachmaninoff and others of that era from Russia: the performers must have the ability to rake your soul across the hot coals of hell, but, some moments later, offer a glimpse of the promise to come. To accomplish this, the RPO musicians are at once being compelled to deliver physical exertion and then being asked to contract, steady, and then slowly use those same muscles. It's not easy to pull off.
The guest conductor should be told that he received the equivalent of a standing ovation at the end of that Adagio movement: no one moved for what I believe was the longest bubble of silence I have heard at the RPO. No one wanted to break the spell that had been cast. Not a cough or a sneeze was heard in the house, and the Adagio was already the third movement of this lengthy symphony.
RPO first oboe Erik Behr was the soloist for the Strauss Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and he did a fine job. Running approximately 30 minutes, the piece was performed with continuous flow, even thought it contains four primary tempo markings. The piece has a rather refreshing quality - all the more so as it was performed after the Hindemith. Behr's technique speaks for itself as he breathes and fingers his way through even the quickest passages with ease.
This was the first time the RPO had performed the Hindemith, and it was interesting. On the one hand, it was a big, heavy, dense, German composition. On the other hand, it was acoustically interesting. How often do you hear a work without a wind section where the brass is full and has a meaningful role? At first, I jotted down "eerie," but that was perhaps incorrect; it may have been more of an agony.
So here's the thing: you are required to attend the RPO either this week or next. This week's concert has the sure thing of a Rachmaninoff symphony that I've heard and give a good performance thumbs up. Next week, we'll have Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," Nir Kabaretti, guest conductor, who I interviewed for our City newspaper article that profiled each of this season's guest conductors and give a super interview thumbs up. It's live. It's local. And it's just a great way to do something good for yourself before the madness of the holidays pulls us into the undertow.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the program again Saturday, November 16, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information visit the website.
Thursday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed under the fourth guest conductor of the season, Christoph Campestrini, in a performance that included orchestral works by Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky and a piano concerto by Mozart that featured pianist Barry Snyder. Russian composers have the ability to take you with them as they rake their souls across the coals of hell. Unfortunately, I found the performance Thursday night only lukewarm. Both the Stravinsky and the Tchaikovsky suffered from a lack of differentiation from each other, and from Mozart.
The Stravinsky work was Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la fée" ("The Fairy's Kiss"), a suite in four parts (1949 version). "The Fairy's Kiss" is based on the "The Ice Maiden" by Hans Christian Andersen. It is a story with a terrifically dark underside. The kiss in question is bestowed by a fairy, impersonating the true love of a young man (while his true love is off putting on her wedding dress, no less), which locks him into the Land of Eternal Dwelling. This is not a fairy bringing glittery good wishes, but rather one harboring a wicked selfishness.
Stravinsky's score is at once brilliant and tricky; there are all sorts of pop-up solos throughout the wind and the brass instruments. The solo lines and phrases serve as a variety of characters in this work -- it was originally conceived as a ballet -- and give an opportunity to keep the audience on its toes, almost if wondering, "Who did that?"
The performance Thursday, unfortunately, was missing both the dark undertone and the quirky bits and bobs that not only make this a unique score, but also make it a work by Stravinsky. When I had interviewed Campestrini back in August for our article profiling all of the guest conductors for the RPO's 2013-14 season, he said, "This program asks what is necessary for any performance: the stylistic variety of each requires a totally different approach." Perhaps that can bear into the baton for Saturday night's performance.
Likewise, the Tchaikovsky simply didn't take me into the heartland of Mother Russia. There is an essential emotional component to the Russian masters that, if not captured, can almost leave a work a bit flat. Perhaps the best way I can articulate it is this: the musicians' backs rarely left their chairs. By contrast, when guest conductor Jun Märkl lead the RPO in Mahler's Titan Symphony on September 28, the musicians practically left their seats and took off -- metaphorically speaking -- with the music. The RPO is an incredibly talented group of musicians and can be pushed much further and harder to elicit a stirring interpretation of this work.
So what then of Herr Mozart? Dankeschön, Herr Snyder und Herr Campestrini. Snyder's touch was clean on a piano and the sound was clear. The tempos were nicely selected. And the variation of tone among dynamic markings felt true to the particular performance. While it is true that my heart lies in the deep bass rumblings of what one might refer to as "the war horse competition concertos," I hope that the RPO will continue to bring us the less-frequently performed piano concertos. Mozart, in particular, does have this knack for a surprisingly satisfying impact upon the audience, while fooling us into thinking his compositions are oh-so-simple.
The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, November 9, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Ticket cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit rpo.org.
It's funny; a lot of psychedelic era or music influenced by the psychedelic era doesn't sound that psychedelic to me. I think in many cases these were in essence garage bands on psychedelic drugs. Minds are still getting explored and bent, but the sounds frequently aren't all that mind-bending.
Exception: Rochester's psychedelic sonic sensation The LSD Enigma, a duo the works in intensity, swirling color, and depth, and is just a couple of clicks away from being weird. The band played Friday for the art-crawling set for First Friday festivities at the Record Archive. The band adheres to the genre's folk-story roots but splashes in tons of slap-back and reverb over an infectious go-go beat. It was the delay and dimension created by the reverb that gave the show a truly psychedelic twist and shout over the otherwise organic strain of the choppy acoustic guitar, snappy, treble-tight drums, and harmonies reminiscent of Phil and Don in outer space.
I've preached and pontificated and pleaded the case for classic bar bands. I'm talking about artists that play hard, performing music for scooting around the joint with your hands around something cold and your arms around something warm. Bands like The Nightstalkers. Honestly, there are few better. I've been going to see this band since when the late Marshall James roamed the earth and fronted the band with his soulful pipes and dry wit.
I made my way to Sticky Lips Juke Joint Saturday night as the band was laying down its badass blend of bluesy boogie, rock 'n' roll, and jazz. There is something so cool about a blue-collar, working-man's band that relies on zero frills while delivering the thrills for the working-off-their-dinner crowd. It was a moment in time of varying significances -- first date, last date, beers with buddies -- depending on who you ask. When you have a bar band as tight and rockin' as the Nightstalkers, regardless the outcome, it sounds alright.
Thursday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra put on a concert of works by Astor Piazzolla, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Manuel de Falla. They added also an opening work titled "Fanfare to Flora," to celebrate the life and music of Eastman School of Music Dean Douglas Lowry, who died earlier this month.
The headline work may have been Copland's Suite from Appalachian Spring, but the star performance came from Juliana Athayde, violin, for Piazzolla's "Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas" ("The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires"), arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov.
How often do we see a composer's name followed by "arr." for "arranged by?" Often enough that I have a running question in my head asking, "Just how much 'arranged by?'" According to the program notes, while each one of the four pieces was written by Piazzolla, an Argentinean, it was Russian composer Desyatnikov who posthumously unified them into "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" and wrote the playful variations on Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" into each season. Athayde and the RPO not only perfectly timed and phrased these little joking references to Vivaldi, but also revealed with sparkle in their eyes, looking straight at the audience, what I have often heard to be the musicians' own witty personalities.
Athayde, first violin of the RPO, grew up in a family steeped in classical and jazz, and her RPO profile says her iPod ranges from Bach to Bartók to Ellington and Coltrane. There simply is no appropriately classical way to describe Athayde's performance last night. It has to be said: Athayde brought her game. Athayde was in her element, intimately surrounded by 23 stringed instruments of the RPO, and Rachleff brought the same sensitivity he previously gave to guest violinist Augustin Hadelich at the RPO in 2010.
The Barber piece was the Overture to School for Scandal, Op. 5, which was nicely done. The RPO string section is particularly adept at works of this composer and style.
However, I wasn't sold on the Copland. It is a well-known and often-played piece, which creates a challenge in and of itself. One particular point was the rounds of the Shaker "Simple Gifts." I was looking for an execution that would peal the bells of country churches across a New England landscape, but it came across as a bit monochromatic. The performance didn't quite catch the mood of which this work is capable.
[Editor's Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances the critic had to leave the concert prior to the performance of the Falla piece.]
The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, October 26, at 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit www.RPO.org.
Ed Roland's Sweet Tea Project rolled into town Tuesday, October 15, not to steep, not to brew, not to percolate, but to rock the joint like a diesel-powered Dixie-fied deep fryer. The man's music is instantly recognizable, thanks to seven No. 1 hits and more than 10 million albums sold worldwide with his band, Collective Soul -- and so is his voice. What's new and not something you would necessarily pin on Roland is the instrumentation behind Sweet Tea Project's sound. It's pure Americana; not too honky, not too tonky, with just the right amount of dirt, dust, and twang. You can thank the exquisite application of lap steel and the banjo, an instrument which admittedly isn't often known for its exquisite application.
The band filled the newly revamped Richmond's to the walls on Tuesday. It was hot and sticky, sweet and sweaty as the steam heat from the eager bodies shoe-horned in to dig the scene, mingled with that of the fry cook cranking out those hot wings. The band plowed through material off its debut "Devils 'n' Darlins" with a Man in Black detour and a Collective Soul encore. The five-piece band seemed right at home playing authentic barroom rock 'n' roll in an actual beer joint, with the crowd piled in almost nose to nose with the band. We'll be talking about this one for a while. What a great show.
Is it adios to Audio Influx? With the exit of key members Chris "Hollywood" English and MDot Coop, you've got to wonder. But everyone in the band's camp says no. A new drummer has already been rehearsing with the remaining players. Now I'm not saying the band should hang it up, but those are some big shoes to fill. Anyhow, it was a farewell gig of sorts at a packed Dinosaur Friday night, where the band jammed its hip-hop-soul for the kids. The band was incredibly tight with a soulful vocal tag team attack over its thick groove 'n' grind.
Slid over to Richmond's once again for North Carolina hard-rockers Blanco Diablo. This band is loud with a borderline ferocity that threatened to blow the lid off the joint. Digging this band in this size joint was like watching a Panzer park in a phone booth. I'd seen the trio once before and it seems like it has moved in a slightly more metal direction, at least in its guitar attack. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.
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.
Bless her heart, Candye Kane is giving the big C the big fight. Clearly in pain and looking a bit tired, the still ever-beautiful performer sang the pain (hers and mine) away Wednesday, October 9, at Abilene. It was the best I'd ever heard her sing as her band -- starring the incredible Laura Chavez on guitar -- bopped the swingin' blues. Not long on self-pity or hand-wringing, Kane's set was both emotional and inspiring. She bemoaned her weight loss and waxed nostalgic for her 300-pound frame of yore. But I'm here to tell you, the big broad was still there in all her randy, raunchy, Rubenesque, rocking glory.
The faithful readers of my rants have been known to give me shit when I bounce around from venue to venue like a pinball. So this week, though there were multiple events on my radar ("Machete Kills" will have to wait until next week sometime), I decided to hit one show and dig it from load-in to load-out. It was So Last Year's CD release show Friday night at Lovin' Cup, with guests Adam Clark and Joe Percy. It was a night of song-centric wonderment from all three artists.
Percy, of Sans Ego fame, took the stage with his guitar and his uncle -- that would be Paul Morabito of the Moovies and Chesterfield Kings fame -- on bass. Percy established his musicality and quirk by opening with Ween's fun and falsetto'd "Freedom of 76" before launching into an otherwise totally original set. His guitar gently wept, and though electric, he played it Push Star/Velvets style with a decidedly acoustic strum and attack. Morabito held the bottom end Longhorn-style and plodded about in a more of a freeform counterpoint than actual support. It twisted and mingled well with Percy's gentle lyricism.
Reminding me of Ryan Adams sans the nicotine, Adam Clark took the stage with a set of music that can be viewed two ways. If he were an acoustic artist, the set would have seemed ramped and amped up. If he were an electric artist, then it would have come off reserved. Not knowing his plugged or unplugged roots, I had to focus on the music at hand. It was lovelorn lyrically with a percussive attack from the two acoustic guitars parked up front. It was quiet and the band had a little trouble getting the preoccupied crowd to turn an ear, but the audience eventually came around. Good music will do that.
The star of the show, however, was Logan Van Epps, whose So Last Year was there to celebrate the release of its CD, "It's Later Than You Think." Manning the piano from center stage, Van Epps led his full band through some interesting, un-brandable pop. His voice is mighty flexible, though he spent most of the time flexing its upper register, its beauty only matched by the introduction of an abbreviated string section about halfway through the band's short set.
I've determined, especially after Friday night's show, that the Montage Music Hall needs lots of bodies in it to make it sound right and absorb some of that immense boom and swell. And there's nothing other than laziness that keeps would-be rockers from peeling their eyeballs off the boob tube and putting themselves in front of some good ol' loud 'n' heavy.
For Instance, as I rolled up, AFR was brandishing its set like something a Viking might use to disembowel an opponent. There was no 0; the band hit the ground at 60, cranking the intensity incrementally until the climax at the end of its brief set. People Can Be More Awesome followed with interesting percussive additives to music that sounded a lot heavier than I expected from a band that I figured more for indie rock. Who knows, maybe this is the next wave to fall under that category. It was interesting at the very least.
A Beautiful Ending made its debut with a quick set of intensity that hovered in the twilight. Singer Lisa Canarvis' voice is as penetrating as her gaze. It was not the least bit shrill, but it capably cut through and rode the band's seriously pounding sonic swirl. There was a sense of elegance to its largess. I liked it, I liked it.
Like a cross between Hasil Adkins and those bearded, square-dancing hillbillies that Bugs Bunny had to deal with, Filthy Still rocked a three-quarters-full Abilene Saturday night with an unparalleled redneck fury. Straight outta Providence, Rhode Island, the band was reminiscent of Hank III in attitude, but much more raw and to the bone. With its utility man swapping back and forth between resonator and banjo, it was pure Appalachian punk-grass stomp 'n' holler.
Following that hootenanny was Denver's Reno Divorce, a band that collectively blasts out four-barreled rock music a la the Cadillac Tramps or Social Distortion. It was slick, tight, and loud, with a cocky lyrical swagger and come-on riding shotgun with its Les Paul attack.
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.