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Classical Review: The RPO season opener 

Ward Stare sets the tone

To open the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's 93rd season and his first full season as music director, Ward Stare selected four popular works that nevertheless seem as though they are not performed often enough. None of these compositions feature a soloist, but that did not prevent their success with the listeners at the RPO's season opener on Thursday night at Eastman Theatre.

In Paul Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Stare employed a slow, especially deliberate tempo that made the introduction of the work's central theme sound all the more ominous. Each instrument's entrance - from the clarinet to the violin to the French horn - was so cleanly articulated, it was as if each melodic phrase were being served on a platter upon which the listener could feast. The piece's iconic melody came off as particularly jocular, the brooms unequivocally taunting the apprentice as they diligently flood the magician's quarters.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" possesses all the swirling ardor and effusive melodic movement that so quintessentially represent the composer in his defining works. But here, there is a decidedly more savage pathos at work, and a dark cloud of sound gathers, grows, and permeates.

During this performance, Stare demonstrated one of his best assets: strength of articulation. The conductor's consummate control of the orchestral sound could not be overlooked. Packed into every hand gesture and every broad sweep of the shoulder was a concise and nuanced musical idea, both intelligent and immediate. The ensemble sounded lean yet formidable. Its delivery was limber yet intense. Ultimately, the collective musical energy was irrepressible, as a fluid wave of beauty and dread emanated from the tip of the baton.

How do you make a melody as culturally indelible as that of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" sound fresh and newly poignant? As evinced by the RPO, the key is in articulating the moments between the notes, thin slivers of space that were filled with an intense but subtle sense of inexorable forward momentum. While deftly executed by the players, this profound effect would have been neglected entirely if not for the keen ear of Stare.

The program finale, Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome," opened with bright, fantastical colors from the woodwind, trumpet, and percussion sections, the likes of which had not been heard all evening. This in itself was utterly refreshing and satisfying, like a veil being lifted.

And yet as the composition was unfurled, it somehow took on an unflattering self-importance; the gravitas embedded in Respighi's sound felt fabricated and forced. Whereas the previous three works on the program drew from an emotional well that seemed to spring up organically, wild and uninhibited, the "Pines of Rome" sounded obsessively sculpted, to a fault. Rather than appearing earnest and revelatory, the music was merely shrewd and effective.

That is not to say that the RPO played the piece poorly. On the contrary, Stare and company presented a cohesive aural image throughout, which won over the large audience. In the end, "Pines of Rome" simply was not the most moving music of the evening.

And who's to say that a program can't end with a delightfully sardonic seven-minute work of pure fantasy, rather than a nearly half-hour tour-de-force? It all depends on the impression one wishes to leave. Although flipping the order of the bookend compositions would have been inspired, Stare and the RPO made an excellent first impression overall on opening night.

It remains to be seen what a consistent rehearsal schedule and frequent Philharmonics series concerts with Stare on the podium will do for the RPO and its interpretive abilities. The ceiling is a high one, particularly for concerts featuring unfamiliar material for the orchestra. Next up for Stare and the ensemble is an intriguing program that includes Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 alongside Benjamin Britten's "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings," a work the RPO has never before performed.

While such a program populated by important, well-known composers is not such a radical leap for Rochester's classical music audiences, it can help to subtly recalibrate listener's expectations toward an openness to music they are not accustomed to hearing live. At this early stage, it seems that the RPO's patrons would be receptive to just about any piece that Stare opts to perform, though he is far from programming the kind of progressive 20th and 21st-century music played by big-market orchestras like the LA Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic.

Speculation can be fun, but it's not terribly informative. Based on Stare and the orchestra's work together so far, there should be cause for excitement, however, as orchestra and city alike at last have a dynamic music director again.

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