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Classical review: Fabien Gabel conducts the RPO 

Popular guest conductor Fabien Gabel joined the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in a return to Kodak Hall on Thursday for a program that truly was a tale of two halves, featuring startlingly contrasting moods.

It can be argued that the evening's first piece, Bernard Herrmann's suite from the film "Vertigo," was its best: Gabel's conducting was fluid and forceful as he presided over teetering violins, the scurl of low brass, and the ominous, dreamy quality of the vibraphone. "The Nightmare" features some of the most electrifying strong riffs you'll hear in all of orchestral music, and in "Scene d'amour," Herrmann manages to make moments of ecstatic romance sound fatally haunted. Overall, Gabel and the RPO's take on the suite was immersive, and accentuated the composer's gift for lush orchestration and gushing violin melodies that reach ever upward.

Herrmann's music cast such a beautiful shadow that it seeped into Béla Bartók's characteristically enigmatic Violin Concerto No. 2, coloring it with the macabre. Bartók's melodic gestures suddenly felt all the more cataclysmic, and the atmospheric ambiguities turned disorienting and dystopian.

At his best, Bartók has always been an unsettling composer, making the jagged beautiful and the disparate cohesive, in a way that is thrilling yet never quite comfortable. In the second movement, "Theme and Variations: Andante Tranquilo," Gabel's direction seemed to smooth out Bartók's rough edges, leaving the music not quite so savage, but still feral in spots.

One of Gabel's greatest strengths is his capacity for lyricism, exhibiting a kind of meta-connectivity between phrases that enhanced the concerto and gave it more nuance. Soloist Juliana Athayde played as if possessed, powering through double stops and flying up and down the neck of the violin. The violinist evinced a consistent combination of intensity and refinement.

From the first noble notes of Paul Dukas's ballet "La Péri," it was clear that the concert's second-half aesthetics would be different from the wild and eccentric feel of the first. Dukas is a vastly underrated orchestrator, as vividly romantic and unabashedly evocative as Tchaikovsky. Gabel was completely at home, communicating his intuitions to the orchestra with instantaneous magic.

Claude Debussy's "La mer" was the program's headliner. As the sea depicted in the music awoke, the RPO demonstrated Debussy's charm with sumptuous cello swells, shimmering violins, and majestic horns. Gabel took his time, deliberately finessing the tempo and crafting a sound that was grand but light on its feet.

The conductor seemed marginally less at ease here than he had in the Dukas, as the fantastical was replaced by impressionistic realism. Gabel still excelled at eliciting a wide range of dynamics and timbers with graceful precision -- but the performance lacked the free spirit that had inhabited the previous piece.

Despite an anticlimactic ending with what should have been the highlight of the concert, Gabel delivered a strong, polished performance, leading an orchestra that sounded at the top of its game.

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