The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's 2016-17 season has been announced, and like the current season, it has its share of crowd-pleasing classics, American and contemporary works, and notable guest performers. But the big coup here is the presence of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will join conductor Ward Stare and the RPO for a special concert in December. If that were the only huge news, it would be sufficient, but there's a lot more.
Halfway through this inaugural season of Stare's as music director of the RPO, a shift in programmatic focus is already apparent. American composer Samuel Barber has been given the spotlight on multiple occasions, and the performances of new works by contemporary composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis, Stephanie Berg, and Patrick Harlin point to Stare's interest in new contributions to the orchestral repertoire.
The orchestra's 2016-17 season also continues programming that gives previously underrepresented composers the attention they are due. That said, audience members who have come to enjoy certain RPO traditions won't be disappointed, either.
For example, the season opens on September 15 and 17 with beloved guest pianist Jon Nakamatsu performing Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. The next Philharmonics concert on October 13 and 15 finds the orchestra welcoming back Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman for a performance featuring Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 2. The music of Beethoven will be prominent on both programs. The season closes in grand fashion on May 25 and 27 with an opera-in-concert rendition of Giacomo Puccini's classic "La Bohème."
Between those strong bookends, here are some of the highlights of the upcoming season:
"American Music: Stage & Screen," October 27 and 29: Ward Stare leads the RPO in a power-packed evening of works never before performed by the orchestra. American icons including George Gershwin ("I Got Rhythm" Variations) and John Williams, with "For New York (Variations on Themes of Leonard Bernstein)" -- as well as contemporary classical composer John Adams ("Dr. Atomic" Symphony) -- all get their RPO premieres. Bernstein himself is also represented, as is the often-neglected maverick Charles Ives. Pianist Andrew Russo guests. This concert is a dynamic blend of favorites, and for some listeners, the unfamiliar.
"Higdon, Copland & Barber," November 3 and 5: The celebration of American composers under Stare's baton continues. Samuel Barber gets his due once again, this time with "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance," a piece last performed here more than 20 years ago. No longer relegated to a seven-minute concert opener, as in the 2013-14 RPO season, Jennifer Higdon gets top billing with her mesmerizing Percussion Concerto, performed by soloist Colin Currie. The concert closes triumphantly with Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3.
Yo-Yo Ma, December 6: Undoubtedly what will be the most anticipated concert of the season, this one-night-only performance features American treasure Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the most important cellist today. Here he teams up with Stare and company for AntonínDvořák's Cello Concerto. Ma's sensitivity and musical intuition are unrivaled, making him one of the most riveting performers of modern times. The program also boasts the instantly recognizable Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished," by Franz Schubert.
"Mozart's 'Requiem,'" February 2 and 4, 2017: Typically, scheduling W.A. Mozart's masterpiece "Requiem" would be enough to entice audiences to a performance. But Stare has gone above and beyond here, programming Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements (a long-time staple of the New York City Ballet) as well as Alan Hovhaness's Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, both in their RPO premieres. The Eastman-Rochester Chorus also performs.
"Debussy's 'La Mer,'" May 11 and 13: Since the 2013-14 season, guest conductor Fabien Gabel has delighted RPO audiences with his nuanced approach to harmonic texture and his ability to channel the ensemble's best musical qualities - cohesion, balance, poise, and intensity - into truly magical performances. Having wowed in his RPO debut with the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, Gabel returns with Debussy's impressionistic marvel "La Mer." The program only ups the intrigue with BélaBartók's Violin Concerto No. 2, interpreted by Concertmaster Juliana Athayde.
For fans of American music and contemporary composers in particular, then, there is plenty to love about the 2016-17 season. But fans of legendary composers and their works will be pleased as well. Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, Gustav Mahler, and Dmitri Shostakovich all get a nod.
Mozart devotees will also want to mark down January 22 on the calendar, when conductor Michael Butterman leads the RPO in Symphony No. 39, as part of the Sunday Matinee Series at the Performance Hall at Hochstein. Another matinee worth investigating is the pairing of Bach and Stravinsky on June 4.
The RPO also continues its offerings for video games fans and film aficionados. These include "The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses - Master Quest" on November 11, which will feature video projections to accompany the score. Following this season's "Home Alone," live film accompaniment returns with a January 6 presentation of 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," featuring the music of John Williams.
Ultimately, Ward Stare and the RPO have put together another engaging season, with enough variety to please a wide range of audience members while still progressing toward bolder program choices. In with the old, and in with the new.
For the RPO's full 2016-17 program, click here.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.