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Classical review: RPO performs an inconsistent concert with Isabel Leonard 

On Thursday, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director Ward Stare welcomed accomplished opera star Isabel Leonard to Kodak Hall for a program that was heavy on Spanish influence – a welcome programmatic turn – but light on consistency. The story of the concert was a tale of two halves.

The inconsistency was apparent from the beginning, during Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” Overture. Stare is a concise conductor who could never be accused of leading with too heavy a hand. He set up the sonic mood, and then allowed the musicians to play within themselves and emote naturally, rather than put on a superficial affectation. And though this served the orchestra well during the majority of the light and subtly effervescent overture, the tempo got away from the players during the “accelerando” moments, causing them to fall temporarily out of sync with Stare. 
click to enlarge Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. - PROVIDED PHOTO
  • PROVIDED PHOTO
  • Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

Leonard, a mezzo-soprano, then took the stage to sing the Rossini aria “Una voce poco fa,” for the beginning of what would become, unbeknownst to everyone present, a shorter-than-advertised appearance. Leonard’s performance was noticeably measured, though the mezzo’s technical precision and pinpoint intonation were impressive.

Later in the first half of the program, while performing Enrique Granados’s “Canciones amatorias,” Leonard's voice took on greater delicacy. Though Stare did make a point of announcing that the singer was experiencing some vocal wear and tear, her understated delivery seemed as much a result of sensitivity to musical nuance as anything. Under duress or not, Leonard did not have an overpowering vocal presence, It was, however, highly refined and considerably pleasant. The singer’s timbre was dusky, yet light in its attack. She did not return for the concert’s second half, in which she was to sing Manuel de Falla’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.”

It was during the Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol” that the RPO settled into its own, drawing maximum orchestra color from the Russian composer’s evocative score. Stare’s musical control made the varied dynamics all the more vivid. Individual solos were played with joyful aplomb, from the violin to the flute to the harp, and a palpable energy and focus pervaded the entire ensemble.

If the RPO’s performance was inconstant prior to the intermission, the orchestra was decidedly on-point after the break. During Falla’s “Three-Cornered Hat” Suite No. 2, Stare’s group was at its most potent and demonstrative, making the other compositions feel timid and underwhelming by comparison. The music was lively, even welcomingly boisterous at times.

The concert closed with its headlining composition – Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro.” The legendary, proto-minimalist work boasts just one lilting, melismatic melody, but it’s a good one. This hook is repeated by various instruments throughout the orchestra, with different combinations of harmonic textures floating in and out of focus to lend context and a sense of forward movement. The gradual swell of the music – from soft and perceptible to bold and indefatigable over the span of 12 epic minutes – was downright hypnotic. “Boléro” requires tremendous control and musical panache, and the RPO was certainly up to the task.

Thursday’s performance was far from perfect, but there were undeniable moments of prime orchestral lyricism that showcased the RPO’s inherent strengths – engaging melodies, dynamic contrast, and collective charisma.

Stare and the RPO will repeat the program on Saturday night, with Leonard performing all three works intended for Thursday night, barring further setbacks. Thursday-night concert-goers can get free tickets for the Saturday night program by calling the RPO box office, 585-454-2100.

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