Concert review: Gorgeous melodies fill RPO opener

01:59 PM, Sep 27, 2013


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

If you go

What: Opening weekend of the RPO’s 91st season featuring works by Mahler, Mendelssohn and Aaron Jay Kernis.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 (pre-concert talk at 7 p.m.).
Where: Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: Tickets range from $15 to $92.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or any Rochester-area Wegmans. Visit rpo.org.

Joined by violinist Jennifer Koh and guest conductor Jun Märkl, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 91st season at the Eastman Theatre on Thursday with a potent mix of restraint and revelation.

The program began with contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance.” The piece sounded patronizing at times, particularly with the nearly derivative opening measures recalling Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story. Thankfully, this theme gave way to the slightly staggered syncopations of the trumpets, which made for an intriguing and idiosyncratic fanfare.

As the piece progresses briskly, Kernis excels at pushing the symphonic sound to the brink of melodic cohesion. At times, the impending cacophony felt insatiable. This tonal noise seemed a fitting precursor to the different yet equally severe expressions of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1,” which was set to close the evening.

In Felix Mendelssohn’s “Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra,” the composer wastes no time in gifting listeners with a gorgeous melody during the opening bars. Despite the striking brilliance in Jennifer Koh’s solo violin, it was guest conductor Jun Märkl’s sudden decrescendo in the orchestral accompaniment that provided the most beautiful moment of the evening. Märkl’s style is forceful yet not overly effusive, flowing without being muddy. Koh tended to get out of the way of the sumptuous melodies, content to let them unfold of their own accord and without bluster.

In the third movement, Märkl once again demonstrated his supreme sensitivity to dynamics in service of Mendelssohn’s exquisite violin melodies. Throughout, the RPO demonstrated a Baroque sense of precision that was both poignant and tasteful. At the composition’s end, Koh and company were met with a standing ovation.

After the intermission, Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D Major,” also commonly known as “The Titan,” proved to be Märkl’s time. He conducts with an ear for momentum. Lapping eagerly at the implied syncopations with his left hand, he is as keen to accentuate the sound between articulations as he is to highlight the initial melodic entrance. In the second movement, Märkl’s direction seemed to draw even more of a lilt out of the orchestra than the central folk-like tune requires.

The following movement’s variation on the “Frère Jacques” melody sounded particularly piquant, with Märkl extracting added meaning from the sudden swells and pointed articulation on the flutes and English horns.

The ferocity exhibited in the fourth movement of the Mahler matched the unabashed chaos of Kernis’ “New Era Dance.” The unexpected continuity between the two pieces lent unity to what otherwise may have been an excellent yet seemingly unconnected set of compositions.

The potency of this season opener bodes well for the RPO. And if Jun Märkl’s inspiring performance from the podium is a harbinger of things to come, Rochester audiences can look forward to many more spellbinding guest conductors in the months to come.

Daniel J. Kushner is a Rochester-based freelance writer.