In its concert in Kodak Hall Thursday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra interpreted the works of important composers who, despite their undeniable mastery, are not included frequently enough in orchestral programs. By adding a guest appearance from a young American phenom to the mix - Simone Porter - the recipe for success was complete.
Opening the concert, Richard Wagner's Act III Prelude from "Lohengrin" had just the right balance of frenetic energy and taut phrasing, which was most notable in the noble tone of the French horns. Following that, conductor Ward Stare coaxed a warm, endearing tone from both orchestra and chorus as they navigated the enigmatic terrain of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Toward the Unknown Region." The Eastman-Rochester Chorus's contribution was at various times calming, and the choral performance was serviceable, though the singers lacked a collective charisma, particularly among the tenors and basses. This was largely remedied as the composition progressed toward the climax, but even the moments of fortissimo needed more bite - the kind of vocal attack that, though not necessarily louder, would have been more forceful.
As with so many of the most skilled musicians, violinist Simone Porter achieves masterful expressivity in the notes themselves, but she is able to transcend even that level of artistry by articulating the movement between the notes, the intangible and usually imperceptible vibrations of sound that make the music truly resonate with the soul. Though the RPO has already achieved this effect in Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" this season, Porter's performance of the same composer's Violin Concerto last night was a supreme example. Porter's playing was suffused with a rare combination of passion and elegance, suggesting a maturity well beyond her 19 years of age.
Barber excelled in writing melodies that were somehow both ecstatic and mournful. With great conviction and a self-possessed demeanor, Porter illuminated this dichotomy with intuitive ease. Her execution of intricate, lightning-quick runs in the final movement - "presto in moto perpetuo" - was impeccably clean. In total, this was a must-hear performance. Keep your ears open for Simone Porter for years to come.
For its part, the RPO handled Barber's characteristically tender writing for strings with great facility, demonstrating exquisite legato phrasing. Stare's interpretive style seemed ideally suited for the composer's music - applying firm rhythmic control to fluid and intensely lyric phrases. In less capable hands, the sound could have devolved into mush. And yet Stare's commitment to clarity and ensemble cohesion helped to elevate the music to its natural state.
Porter's performance aside, the main draw Thursday night was Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" excerpts. From the gorgeous austerity of "Montagues and Capulets" and the jaunty, subtle playfulness of "Masks" to the towering musical omen "Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet" and the rugged, feral tunefulness of "The Death of Tybalt," this was polished musical storytelling. Throughout, Prokofiev's economical, streamlined orchestration was replete with engaging melodies and rich harmonic textures without becoming congested or convoluted. It was apparent that the orchestra relished performing this composition. And Stare's conducting was robust and effusive; he physically embodied the flow of the music.
Under Stare's direction, the RPO has acquired new refinement and a consistently tighter sound. And once again, its execution of Barber's music was grippingly beautiful and insightful. Here's hoping for even more neo-romanticism from the RPO in future programming.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.