Friday, September 27, 2013

Concert Review: RPO Opening Weekend (Mahler's First Symphony)

Posted By on Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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.

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