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RPO returns to live performance, Delfs debuts as director 

click to enlarge The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed its first live concert in more than a year at Perinton Center Stage Amphitheater on Thursday, June 3, 2021. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed its first live concert in more than a year at Perinton Center Stage Amphitheater on Thursday, June 3, 2021.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reunited with its live audience on Thursday night at Perinton Center Stage Amphitheater after an absence of more than a year. The concert was the first in the group’s summer-long “RPO Outdoors” series, but it was also Andreas Delfs’s first in-person performance as the orchestra’s music director designate.

Even with a limited number of physically distanced concertgoers lounging on lawn chairs and blankets across the tiered hill overlooking the stage, there was a degree of anticipation you typically only feel in September at the start of the traditional Philharmonics season.

Both programmatically and in the performance itself called “Summer Serenade,” the concert was a nod to the stalwart, conservative fan of classical music — which is not to say it was misplaced. If anything, Music Director Designate Andreas Delfs’s decision to present cherished composers felt like a warm reunion with a friend you hadn’t heard from in a while.

The RPO will present a repeat performance of “Summer Serenade” on Friday, June 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the Perinton Center Stage Amphitheater, 1530 Turk Hill Road in Perinton. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test is required for entry. For tickets and more information on physical distancing guidelines and concert protocols, call 454-2100 or visit rpo.org.
click to enlarge The RPO and its music director designate Andreas Delfs at the first of  "RPO Outdoors" concerts on Thursday, June 3, 2021. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • The RPO and its music director designate Andreas Delfs at the first of "RPO Outdoors" concerts on Thursday, June 3, 2021.
From the opening bars to the overture from Mozart’s minor opera “The Impresario,” it was clear the orchestra felt the excitement as well, despite performing with reduced personnel as a kind of chamber orchestra. Under Delfs’s straightforward and decidedly unflashy direction, the musicians interpreted Mozart with an appropriately spright and limber rhythmic sensibility.

Next up was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C Major, a four-movement piece for string orchestra whose earnest melodies and lush textures have helped make it one of the composer’s most beloved works and later, the musical source material for one of the late choreographer George Balanchine’s most memorable ballets, “Serenade.”

The RPO interpreted the opening theme with a sovereign beauty, which was given an added depth by the tremolo in the cello section. Later in the first movement, the melody in the violins and the responding counterpoint from the violas made for lithe interplay As a whole, the strings’ dynamic contrast between loud and soft highlighted Tchaikovsky’s talent for lyricism.

RELATED: RPO taps veteran conductor Andreas Delfs as music director

Delfs’s conducting was reserved, almost relaxed. He barely lifted his feet from the podium as he kept them square under his shoulders, as if centering himself, and the music with it. The orchestra’s sound was sharply focused as a result. This quality was especially noticeable in the charming waltz of the second movement, in which the ensemble’s intonation was precise.

The program concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, featuring lighter and much less brooding music than people tend to expect from the composer. His attitude in the First Symphony is decidedly playful — even sneaky in the quieter phrases — though the sudden presence of bombastic, major-chord sonorities represented a return to his iconic sound. When conducting Beethoven, Delfs was at his most expressive, punching his fists high into the air to accentuate the bursts of sound.

Ultimately though, Delfs is a conductor of subtlety. Concert attendees looking for grand gestures and unpredictable musical choices likely won’t find them. To a casual listener, this could come off as uneventful, but it’s clear that Delfs rewards those with an ear for the details. Under his direction, the RPO played with great urgency — with notes hitting at the front of the beat — and astonishing articulation. In this way, Delfs was building on the collective chops the RPO had honed during Ward Stare’s tenure as music director.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.

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