RPO announces its 2018-19 season 

click to enlarge Music Director Ward Stare. - PHOTO BY SUZY GORMAN
  • Music Director Ward Stare.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has announced its 2018-19 season, and Music Director Ward Stare continues to hone the RPO's artistic image under his tenure. The orchestra seems to be gradually and methodically working to elevate its status to one of more national relevance.

While Stare's programming tastes can frequently be conservative, the choices he makes are intelligent and provide something for everyone. More new works by living composers would be welcome, but there is no denying that Stare and the RPO care about the future of classical music as well as its past. This will be the RPO's fourth complete slate of concerts under Stare.

On the less risky end of the scale in 2018-19 is Carl Orff's crowd-pleaser "Carmina Burana," presented December 13 and 15 alongside Leonard Bernstein's delightful "Chichester Psalms." The RPO performed "Carmina Burana" in 2015, but it is a choral behemoth and one of the blue-chip works in the repertoire. Elsewhere in the season, there are favorites by Dvorák, Gershwin, and other guaranteed seat-fillers. Yet there is nothing by Tchaikovsky, and from Brahms, only the "Tragic Overture" — both composers are titans of orchestral literature who deserve to be performed as frequently as possible.

Highlighting the RPO's Special Concert series is a performance by Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. on January 18, 2019. And the RPO's successful run of video game concerts continues on September 25 with "Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy." "The Nutcracker" with the Rochester City Ballet returns November 21 through 25, and there will be a celebration of Michael Butterman, RPO's principal conductor for education and community, on May 4.

As for the films in concert, the RPO will perform Danny Elfman's score for "A Nightmare Before Christmas" on October 24, and "Ghostbusters" will be presented on December 5. Given the popularity of this season's performance of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," it's no surprise the RPO will take on "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" on January 11 and 12. One more film in concert program is scheduled for January 25 and 26, but hasn't yet been announced.

Conductor Jeff Tyzik is set to lead a stylistically diverse Pops season. Along with the music of George Gershwin, "Giants of Music – 1900-1925," on November 16 and 17, showcases important American composers Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, neither of whom are often heard in this kind of symphonic context. Pianist Jon Nakamatsu and vocalist Doug LaBrecque lend their talents in guest spots. On February 15 and 16, the RPO pays tribute to iconic artists Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, and more in "Queens of Soul." And a month later, Argentinian dance music gets its due with "Eternal Tango," when the Hector Del Curto Tango Quintet joins Tyzik and company on March 15 and 16. The Pops season ends May 31 and June 1 with "Lush Life," a tribute to Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

Subscription packages are available now and will go on sale by phone Wednesday, January 31, at 10 a.m. Single tickets will be available at a later date. For ticket information and the full RPO schedule, including the Sunday Matinee and OrKIDStra Series, can be found online at rpo.org or by calling 454-2100.

click to enlarge Leslie Odom Jr. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER BOUDEWYNS
  • Leslie Odom Jr.

Below are some of our most anticipated concerts in the 2018-19 Philharmonics season:

Ward Stare makes a definitive statement about his time with the orchestra with "American Songbook/Bernstein Centennial" on September 20 and 22. In the last few seasons, American music from both the 20th and 21st centuries has been a priority for the RPO, and these concerts are a poignant culmination of that focus. Several composers make return appearances here, including Samuel Barber — whose creative presence has been a constant since Stare arrived to lead the orchestra — and contemporary composer Patrick Harlin, whose "Rapture" was a riveting surprise in the 2015-16 season.

Bernstein's "Divertimento" is on the bill in continued recognition of his centennial, and the RPO is expanding its collaborative partnership with composer Jennifer Higdon. The orchestra and soloist Yolanda Kondonassis will premiere Higdon's Harp Concerto in March as part of the 2017-18 season, and in this September concert, the performance will be repeated for a world premiere recording of the work. Though there aren't many contemporary classical selections programmed for 2018-19, the September 20 and 22 performances are exciting confirmation of the RPO's commitment to performing world premieres by American composers.

In "Rustic Hungarian Harmonies," on November 8 and 10, the RPO and guest conductor Carlos Kalmar of the Oregon Symphony traverse a wide variety of genres: Symphony No. 98 from the prototypical Classical period composer Franz Joseph Haydn; the quintessential Romantic Franz Liszt and his "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1"; and 20th century composer Zoltan Kodály's sweeping "Galánta Dances." Not to be overlooked here is Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor, featuring the RPO's thrilling Principal Cello Ahrim Kim, who stood out during this season's performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

click to enlarge Yolanda Kondonassis. - PHOTO BY MARK BATTRELL
  • Yolanda Kondonassis.

More than 100 years has passed since composer Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was first performed, and the legendary ballet remains as enigmatic and magical as ever. Last interpreted by the RPO in 2013, this inscrutable masterwork is equal parts sensuality and savagery, and may just be the most seminal classical composition of the 20th century. It will be intriguing to hear Stare put his stamp on the piece on January 31 and February 2, 2019, alongside performances of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Jon Nakamatsu once again) and "Isle of the Dead" by Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose non-piano compositions are too infrequently programmed.

In the spring, the RPO will present three substantial 20th century symphonies. Gustav Mahler fans will be delighted that Stare is conducting the composer's Seventh Symphony on February 28 and March 2 — the RPO's third Mahler symphony in as many seasons. The work is a symphonic nut that is difficult to crack, but nonetheless fascinating to conductors and classical fans alike. Similarly seldom-encountered are two other symphonic powerhouses: Dmitri Shostakovich's 10th Symphony on March 7 and 9, also under Ward Stare, and William Walton's First Symphony — seldom-encountered outside the United Kingdom — under guest conductor Michael Francis on April 11 and 13.

The 2018-19 season doesn't really offer an overriding theme, but it does continue some excellent RPO practices from the last few seasons. Leonard Bernstein will continue to get a 100th birthday shout-out in the remainder of 2018, with performances of three of his pieces: the above mentioned "Chichester Psalms" and "Divertimento" as well as "On the Town: Three Dance Episodes." And Stare, who debuted at the Met late last year leading Franz Lehár's "The Merry Widow," will continue to present opera. His choice to conclude the season, Mozart's "Così fan tutte," is an unusual choice for concert performance, but a logical one, with its small cast and relatively small orchestra. Plus, it's just a really great opera.

To file perhaps under "missed opportunities": given the celebration of Bernstein's centennial and the orchestra's interest in partnering with Rochester City Ballet, it might have been a great idea to combine the two in tribute to such a dance-inspired composer. And just incidentally, it seems odder and odder with the passing years that the RPO never plays music by Minimalist masters Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Performing works by perhaps the two most consequential composers living would reinforce Stare's American music initiative while giving audiences a taste of orchestral music they rarely get to hear. For another season, maybe.

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