Review: Jonathan Biss shines with RPO

10:52 AM, Oct 18, 2013

Jonathan Biss will play with the RPO on Saturday. (Jamie Jung/provided by the RPO / Photo provided by)/


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

If you go

What: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, with pianist Jonathan Biss and guest conductor Bernhard Gueller.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $89 ($10 for students).
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or rpo.org.
Program note: A tribute to the late Doug Lowry, who was dean of the Eastman School of Music, an RPO member and composer, has been rescheduled for the “Appalachian Spring” program on Thursday and next Saturday.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra added yet another compelling performance to its resumé Thursday when it was joined by guest conductor Bernhard Gueller and guest pianist Jonathan Biss for an evening that fully demonstrated why the RPO is so effective.

The concert, which repeats Saturday, began with Jennifer Higdon’s “City Scape: Skyline,” the imposing first movement of a larger work. Sinewy melodies in the strings and woodwinds wound themselves around monumental harmonic structures erected in the brass section. Despite an impassioned performance by the RPO in its first-ever interpretation of the composition, Gueller’s conducting somehow felt conservative and reserved.

The conductor’s no-frills style was much more suited to Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which he began with a spot-on introduction, deliberate and portentous — an enigmatic combination of majesty and dread. The work as a whole was an ideal showcase for an orchestra at the height of its communicative powers, emitting a full, Germanic sound replete with incisive violins and hyperarticulate winds.

For his part, guest pianist Jonathan Biss was a paragon of nuance, relishing the dramatic arc of each phrase as if telling a story entirely in urgent whispers and pregnant pauses. Biss is an inherently selfless musician who breathed life into every dynamic marking and drew purpose from every soloistic flourish. In short, to hear a performer with such an empathic connection to the composer is a rare opportunity.

The RPO is an orchestra of individuals who excel in matching one another’s intensity and attention to detail, and as such was perfectly suited to interpret Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is for this very reason that the second movement, with its focus on duets, felt uncharacteristic in its lack of cohesion — a flubbed note here, a slight rhythmic disagreement there. At times, Gueller’s even-keeled demeanor lacked the charisma that the idiosyncratic élan of the composition required. By the work’s end, however, poignancy returned and Bartók’s enigmatic and unsettling melodies were executed with supreme clarity.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an aspect of the program that speaks not to the quality of the performance, but to the implicit message the RPO is sending regarding the status of contemporary composers in the Eastman Theatre. A common pattern has emerged in the typical RPO concert: open with a short work by a living composer, followed by two favorites from the orchestral repertoire.

While this may seem egalitarian and forward-thinking on its face, it seems to miss the larger point regarding where the future of orchestral music truly lies. When introducing new material to one’s audience, there is a huge swathe of territory between meaningful engagement and alienation. To choose not to explore this fertile ground is decidedly safe. Surely there are larger orchestral works written in the last 70 years or so that could lend special clarity to the masterworks and vice versa, when performed side by side.