Review: Seaman's return brings out best in RPO

08:25 AM, Mar 08, 2013

Christopher Seaman, conductor laureate and retired music director, rehearses with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra this week. (TINA YEE//staff photographer)/

Written By Daniel Kushner

Christopher Seaman, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s beloved conductor laureate, made his annual return this week, leading the RPO before an attentive and appreciative crowd at the Eastman Theatre in a concert that repeats Saturday night.

The program features three of the Romantic era’s most vital composers — Dvorak, Mendelssohn, and Schubert — with C Major taking its place as the predominant key signature for the evening’s compositions.

The program opened with three of Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. The chemistry between Seaman and the orchestra on Thursday night was immediately evident. Collectively, they imbued No. 1 in C Major (Op.46) with gravitas, and Seaman’s conducting was subtle but exacting.

For Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor (Op.72), the orchestra luxuriated in the languid melody and rich harmonic texture, and Seaman took time to relish the sumptuous musical environment. This piece in particular seemed to foreshadow the melancholic intensity of Franz Schubert’s “Great” symphony, which would later close the concert.

But first, the audience was treated to Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto No 1 in G minor for Piano and Orchestra (Op.25), featuring pianist William Wolfram. In the opening movement, the music simmered with dramatic energy, frequently boiling over into the ideal orchestral fortissimo. Seaman is masterful in his ability to elicit a controlled yet poignant performance from his musicians. He conducts with obvious love and reverence for the composer, and the players responded accordingly.

Wolfram expertly navigated Mendelssohn’s melodic flourishes with fluid grace and dexterity. The second movement, “Andante,” hinges on the pianist’s interpretation of the incomparably elegant solo passages. Wolfram’s fingers danced over the keyboard, and the melody seemed to pirouette in the air.

In turn, the RPO lent a feathered accompaniment that cradled the piano melody and focused attention on the soloist. As a whole, the orchestra was expertly aware of its role in the context of each musical phrase, performing the concerto with consummate skill.

The second half of the concert belonged solely to Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major (D. 944). Known as “The Great,” the 50-minute masterpiece begins with a noble theme performed by the French horns in unison, which is then taken over by the oboe. As it made its way through the orchestra, the melody expanded and then suddenly quieted down in the final two notes of the phrase, as if the music became self-conscious and restrained itself.

It is certain that Schubert had to contend with the potent legacy of Beethoven’s symphonies. Perhaps Schubert had to reconcile his own compositions to the masterful works of his predecessor in some way. But the melodies of Schubert possess a quality that Beethoven’s passages do not. While Beethoven’s works represent an undeniable force packaged in concise, bold and indelible themes, Schubert stretches his melodies across time, and the elongated phrases allow the notes to ebb and flow in perpetual motion. Beethoven’s musical revelations come upon the listener like an instantaneous flood. The grandiosity of Schubert, however, is like the tide gradually washing over you.

The RPO’s interpretation sounded both faithful and fresh. In every articulation, change in dynamics, and resolution of a phrase, the players demonstrated the vibrancy of their connection both to their conductor laureate and to the music they were tasked with realizing.

Even amid a triumphant melody in the symphony’s final movement, there is a brooding quality, a restlessness that manifests itself in the tremulous playing of the cellists, the passionate swell in the violins, and the pulsating brass section. Here, Schubert presents us with the simultaneous presence of joy and pain — a beautiful paradox illuminated by meaningful music.