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Lights and shadows

Classical Review: RPO performs Sibelius 

Lights and shadows

A couple of weeks ago, Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra made a flashy, but satisfactory, season debut. That program showed a sure hand in staples of the repertoire; this weekend's concert is a bit more adventurous, but even more satisfying.

It began with "Four Scottish Dances" by Malcolm Arnold, the prolific British composer whose many film scores have the solidity of symphonic music and whose many symphonic works (including nine symphonies and many concertos) have the vivid appeal of film scores. The "Scottish Dances" fall somewhere in the middle: their tunefulness and colorful orchestration make them kind of a Hibernian counterpart to Copland's "Rodeo."Stare danced his way through them on the podium, and the orchestra delivered, from the memorable whooping horn that opens the piece to the third dance's delicate flute solo.

Benjamin Britten's "Serenade," a modern masterpiece from 1943 which received its first RPO performance on Thursday night, couldn't have been a greater contrast to Arnold's colorful, extroverted dance suite. In a way, its shadowy intimacy -- it is scored for a tenor soloist, accompanied by solo French horn and a smallish string orchestra -- makes it an odd choice for a symphony concert, and for Kodak Hall, but I was delighted to hear it.

This is an early example of a Britten "anthology" song cycle, a time-traveling collection of poems by Ben Jonson, John Keats, Lord Tennyson, and others on the composer's obsessions of night, sleep, and dreams. Britten's musical response is, as always, perfectly tailored to the words and the mood of the poetry, and the instrumental writing is exquisitely detailed.

Tenor Andrew Stenson, who was recently featured as a "singer to watch" in Opera News, proved he is an engaging singer. He's not as weighty in tone as some past interpreters of this piece, but he had a lively, dramatic response to the words. Hornist Peter Kurau, an RPO stalwart, gave an authoritative reading of Britten's fiendishly virtuosic horn part, which covers the entire range of the instrument. It was good to see Kurau center stage as a soloist. (By the way, if he sounded "wrong" in places, he was right; Britten deliberately has the modern horn imitate an old hunting horn. It sounds out-of-tune, but in reality is an extremely poetic effect.)

Stenson, Kurau, and Stare treated the "Serenade" as vocal chamber music, rarified but rewarding. The music's myriad details (for example, the sinister fugue for strings and horn in "This Aye Night", which battles the tenor's repetitive vocal line by evoking the terrors of darkness) were individually vivid but perfectly placed, never obscuring the singer.

Much the same might be said of the reading of Sibelius's Second Symphony which followed the Britten. This is a popular symphony, with plenty of surging passion and good tunes, but in many ways it's an odd one. Sibelius's episodic construction and sudden flarings of emotion sometimes sound like he ripped up a Tchaikovsky symphony score and tried to put the pieces back together. And many of the orchestral sounds in this relatively early work -- buzzing string ostinatos, crescendos in the brass that build hugely and just stop -- later became staples of Sibelius's own sound world.

The RPO ranged from luscious to just this side of too loud, but the playing was always full of life and color, with some beautiful, divided string sound, commanding brass, and delicious wind solos (for example, the bassoons who begin the slow movement and the famous oboe tune in the third-movement scherzo). There's a lot in this piece, and Stare held it all together extremely well. He seems to respond to Sibelius's interesting oddities of orchestration and form -- a flash of light here and a curious patch of darkness there -- while setting them into a convincing large canvas. The big finale in the Second is a little too "big finale" here for me, but conductor and orchestra certainly gave it all they had.

Is it fair to assess Stare's work as a conductor and music director two concerts into this season? Probably not, but I can say that I like what I have heard so far. Based on Stare's past and future programming, he seems to most enjoy creating a big, solid, energetic orchestral sound with big, solid, energetic orchestral works. It will be interesting to hear him in Mozart and Beethoven, but he's winning on Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and other late Romantics, and he seems to be interested in all kinds of repertoire the orchestra hasn't done much of lately (programming Britten's "Serenade," not to mention a Sibelius symphony, is a nice sign).



In other RPO news: Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik's contract has been renewed for another three seasons (2016-17; 2017-18; and 2018-19). This will take him through his 25th season with the orchestra. Tyzik can next been seen conducting the orchestra in "Disney in Concert: Tale as Old as Time," on Friday, October 23, and Saturday, October 24, 8 p.m. in Kodak Hall.

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