Concert review: RPO and guests deliver powerful range

05:31 PM, Feb 08, 2013

Ward Stare/


Written By Stuart Low | Staff music critic

If you go

What: The Rochester Philharmonic and guest conductor Ward Stare perform William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American”, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with pianist Terrence Wilson), Douglas Lowry’s The Freedom Zephyr and Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 9).
Where: Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Admission: $15 to $82.
Call: (585) 454-2100 or go to rpo.org.

Pianist Terrence Wilson displayed boundless energy (and a stylish mohawk) at Thursday’s Black History Month concert with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, a program that will be repeated Saturday.

He delivered the jazzy spirit and knuckle-busting high jinks of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with an impressive range of touch. He turned on a dime from thundering double octaves and beefy left-hand themes to surprisingly delicate passage work — as if swapping a ball-peen hammer for a feather duster.

Guest conductor Ward Stare and the RPO brass made the most of Gershwin’s jazz idiom. Principal clarinetist Kenneth Grant clearly enjoyed squeezin’ and teasin’ the juicy glissandos for all they were worth.

Stare, a Pittsford native who just finished a stint as resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, led a slightly more laid-back performance of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American.”

A trailblazer for African-American music, Still was the first black composer to have a symphony premiered by a major orchestra (the RPO in 1931) and an opera performed in a live concert and on television.

Nonetheless, his first symphony might be called blue-eyed soul — sassy and bluesy but drawing on traditional symphonic forms. It contains masterful woodwind writing, and the RPO’s principals (especially flutist Rebecca Gilbert and oboist Erik Behr) rose to the occasion with memorable solos.

The brash, brassy Animato movement had the lanky, photogenic Stare dancing on the podium. And the finale’s eloquent, prayerful outpouring was genuinely uplifting.

The RPO also premiered Douglas Lowry’s The Freedom Zephyr, a piece about the Underground Railroad. In the tradition of Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, it has a narrator reading passages that illuminate a crucial time in American history. Expertly crafted and colorfully orchestrated, Lowry’s score sensitively mirrors the spirit of words: Brooding and meditative for an 1853 speech by Frederick Douglass, urgent and dynamic for a Walt Whitman poem.

The RPO’s committed performance showcased two University of Rochester leaders: narrator Paul Burgett, a UR vice president; and Eastman School of Music dean Lowry, who came onstage to acknowledge enthusiastic applause.

Thursday’s fourth selection, Hindemith’s 1934 symphony Mathis der
Mahler (Matthias
the Painter), may have seemed like an odd choice for a Black History Month program. Each movement is based on a religious scene from a church altar painting by the German master Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528). Yet Hindemith also depicts a long history of oppression — the struggles of the Protestant Reformation, the brutal German Peasants’ War of 1524 and his own conflicts with the growing Nazi party. This vast timeline is reflected in Hindemith’s highly inventive use of medieval, baroque and modern musical styles.

Stare conducted it with calm authority but frequently lacked a shaping artistic vision. His rendition of the second movement seemed ponderous and stiff, even for a portrayal of an entombment. But he brought blazing vitality to the final Temptation of St. Anthony and coaxed an impassioned, trilling episode from the RPO strings and a magnificently ear-splitting chorale from the brass.

The audience in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre gave the musicians a well-deserved ovation.