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Classical review: RPO with Fabien Gabel 

This week’s Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert may be titled “Gabel Conducts Beethoven,” but forgive me, Ludwig lovers — the real news here is the non-Beethoven half of the program: RPO premieres of suites from Francis Poulenc’s ballet “Les Animaux modéles” and Sergei Prokofiev’s opera “War and Peace.”

“Gabel” is Fabien Gabel — who has become a popular RPO guest conductor — joined by Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen in his RPO debut. And the first half was indeed Beethoven, featuring Pohjonen in the Piano Concerto No. 1.

French conductors are often typecast in French music — not a bad thing, of course, if you like French music. (I do.) In previous RPO appearances, Gabel’s elegant style has seemed ideal for composers like Debussy and Dukas, but also effective in Bartók and Tchaikovsky. Last night, Gabel’s performance was also quite satisfying in Beethoven. The “Egmont” Overture, which featured some handsome string playing, nicely captured this short, intense work’s Beethoven-in-a-nutshell quality.

click to enlarge Popular guest conductor Fabien Gabel leads the RPO in two lesser-known gems by Poulenc and Prokofiev this Saturday at Kodak Hall. - PHOTO BY STÉPHANE BOURGEOIS
  • PHOTO BY STÉPHANE BOURGEOIS
  • Popular guest conductor Fabien Gabel leads the RPO in two lesser-known gems by Poulenc and Prokofiev this Saturday at Kodak Hall.
The opening movement of the First Concerto struck me as just a bit slow and stodgy, though neatly played by the orchestra — even more so in the slow movement, which had some striking solo clarinet and oboe playing. These first two movements were quite grand, but the finale (one of Beethoven’s zaniest) galloped out of the gate. Pohjonen’s somewhat blunt style made an effective contrast to Gabel’s, in an interpretation that eventually won me over.

Poulenc and Prokofiev, on the other hand, won me over long ago, and the second half of the concert provided a couple of discoveries. These two little-known works, both produced in the early-1940s, are both symbols of Nazi resistance. And like nearly everything by these two popular composers, they are lively, colorful, and welcome.

The “model animals” depicted in Poulenc’s ballet are models of human behavior, taken from the fables of the 17th-century writer Jean de La Fontaine, which you may remember from high-school French class. The stories are similar to Aesop’s, but more, well, French; the titles here include “The Lion in Love” and “The Middle-Aged Man and His Two Mistresses.”

The fables of LaFontaine are (or were) considered one of the glories of French literature, and given that any educated French audience would recognize them, Poulenc’s ballet became a symbol of French civilization and resistance. “Les Animaux modéles” was first produced in occupied Paris in 1942, with plenty of Nazi officers and Parisian collaborateurs in the audience Poulenc even quoted a couple of French Revolutionary songs in his music.

You don’t need the backstory to enjoy the music, which occupies the same enchanting world as Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.” Poulenc is better known for songs and choral music than orchestral works, but “Les Animaux modeles” is a delight. Its take-home tunes, wit, and general Frenchness are irresistible, and make you wonder why this piece isn’t heard all the time. Gabel was a persuasive advocate, highlighting the contrasts between the light moments and occasional outbursts of darkness and drama.

Befitting its subject, Sergei Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” is a very grand opera indeed. Leo Tolstoy was famously indifferent to music, but his great novel is a natural subject for an ambitious composer, offering infinite, made-to-order operatic situations: war, peace, military battles, fancy balls, death scenes, snowstorms, romance, and Mother Russia. And to Russian audiences who had helped to defeat the Nazis, parallels with Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invasion were not lost.

No wonder Prokofiev labored mightily and long over “War and Peace,” and thought it his masterpiece. No doubt it is loaded with marvelous music — four and a half hours of it. So while it is held in high esteem, it is rarely produced.

Enter Christopher Palmer, who has concocted a “War and Peace” orchestral suite in the vein of Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” Suite or orchestral sequences from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Palmer chose well: This music is brash, elegant, and prime Prokofiev. It opens with a huge cymbal crash and stays high-energy throughout, in a sequence that includes a gala but slightly sinister waltz, a beautiful nocturne, a rip-roaring battle, and an over-the-top but inspiring hymn of victory.

It’s no substitute for the opera, but having 25 minutes of vivid orchestral Cliff Notes is better than not having “War and Peace” at all. Gabel seemed to bring out every bit of color and energy in this work; you hardly missed the singers. The scoring may or may not be entirely Prokofiev’s, but it sure sounds authentic, and the RPO sounded sensational in it, from top to bottom. And I do include the two tambourine players.

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