As a lover of both classical music and hockey, for me the fall season is a great time of year. And in the case of both the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Buffalo Sabres, there may be plenty about which to cheer this season.
It is clear to me that the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is an organization in the middle of a rebuild. In the wake of former Music Director Arild Remmereit's turbulent tenure and subsequent firing in January 2013, the RPO has spent the last two seasons without a consistent maestro at the podium, subsisting instead with a revolving door of guest conductors.
With Ward Stare formally announced as music director in the summer of 2014 and now entering his first full season with the orchestra, I'm reminded that the Sabres (my hometown team) of the National Hockey League are also poised for a turnaround year following a disappointing period of uncertainty.
Admittedly, the analogy between the orchestra and the sports team is far from perfect. The Sabres have finished in last place league-wide for two consecutive seasons, while the RPO continued to put out a quality product during an uncomfortable period of transition. Tim Murray was brought in as general manager of the Sabres to revitalize the organization, while RPO President and CEO Charles H. Owens has been present throughout.
Compared to the numerous lineup shakeups for the Sabres - see the recent acquisitions of forwards Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly and goalie Robin Lehner and the departure of mainstays like forward Drew Stafford and defenseman Tyler Myers - changes to the RPO's core personnel are much less frequent.
All that said, in focusing on Stare's leadership role for the RPO and the distinctive responsibilities he will shoulder, the comparison between orchestra and team becomes relevant. Stare is obviously like Dan Bylsma, the newly appointed head coach of the Sabres entering his first season with the team. Bylsma brings a proven track record of success, having previously won a Stanley Cup championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Stare effectively led the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra as resident conductor from 2008 to 2012, has guested with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Dallas and Houston Symphonies, among others, and has conducted at Carnegie Hall.
Bylsma was an NHL player for parts of nine seasons, so he understands the game of hockey from his team's perspective. Stare began his career as principal trombonist with Lyric Opera of Chicago. And like Bylsma, Stare will set the style of play he wants to see from his personnel and choose a game plan - in this case, an approach to the compositions he selects - that enables his players to perform at their best.
While it is too early to tell exactly what style of play Bylsma's squad will possess, it is already clear that the identity of the RPO under Stare will be an adventurous one. This season's programs emphasize the performance of contemporary compositions by the likes of Stephanie Berg, Patrick Harlin, and Aaron Jay Kernis, as well as underperformed works by important composers such as Benjamin Britten, Richard Wagner, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
But why Bylsma's job is firmly "behind the bench," Stare is more of a player-coach, since his performance is inextricably linked to that of his teammates in the orchestra. But which Sabres player is Stare most like?
Enter Jack Eichel, a highly touted, dynamic center out of Boston College who was drafted second overall by the Sabres in this year's NHL draft. Eichel is frequently referred to as a "generational talent," a player whose speed, puck control, and ability to dictate the flow of the game with his play have him poised to lead the Sabres for years to come. He is already the "face of the franchise," without having played a single NHL game.
Stare's conducting style is fluid, controlled, and articulate, and he possesses an excellent rapport with the RPO musicians. It is apparent that he is the "face of the franchise" for the RPO, the talented young musician one hopes will help the orchestra establish a signature sound that will resonate for many seasons to come.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.