Concert review: RPO guest conductor enlivens 'Appalachian Spring'

12:21 PM, Oct 25, 2013

RPO concertmaster Juliana Athayde's violin solo was fluid and self-assured. (CARLOS ORTIZ/ / staff file photo)/


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

If you goWhat: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra “Appalachian Spring” concert.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $92; $10 for students.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or rpo.org.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday presented a rare program of entirely 20th century music under the direction of guest conductor Larry Rachleff.

The compatibility of these works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla and Manuel de Falla was especially striking. With the exception of the Barber composition, the pieces that were presented possessed a decidedly colloquial flair for styles native to each of the composer’s respective countries.

The program, which repeats Saturday, had a fitting performance of Douglas Lowry’s Fanfare for Flora in tribute to the composer, Eastman School of Music dean and RPO board member who died on Oct. 2.

After the tribute, the orchestra launched into Barber’s Overture to “School for Scandal,” a vivacious piece that stirs anticipation in a listener’s ear like few others. There was a boundless energy in Rachleff’s conducting as he found meaningful accents in melodically loaded phrases, particularly those from the string lines. There was a similarity to the near-feral, left-of-center beauty of contemporary composer Nico Muhly’s chamber music (see Études 1 and 3 written for violist Nadia Sirota).

Next came Copland’s Suite from “Appalachian Spring.” Though it paired well with the Barber piece — both works feature galvanizing violin hooks and subdued lyricism in the clarinet and oboe — “Appalachian Spring” lacked a freshness that can only be explained by its utter familiarity to orchestra and audience alike.

Still, Rachleff seemed the ideal conductor to interpret such a well-worn piece, his tireless attention to the heartbeat of the music bringing newfound invigoration. The conductor lavished attention on the richness of Copland’s rhythms, no easy task considering the indelible quality of the composer’s melodies.

Therein lays the key to the performance. Without Rachleff’s ability to draw the listener’s ear to a more overlooked aspect of the music, the interpretation could have gotten lost in the fray that is status quo orchestral Americana. It would have been particularly interesting to hear Rachleff conduct a Charles Ives symphony alongside this work.

Featuring a paired-down chamber orchestra with RPO concertmaster Juliana Athayde as soloist, Piazzolla’s Argentine tango-infused The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires revealed a free-flowing unity between ensemble and violinist. Athayde’s playing was fluid and self-assured. The piece was notable above all for the way it seemed to dispense with pretensions and disarm audience members, who warmed to the music immediately, clapping enthusiastically after each of the four movements.

The evening came to a jovial close with the Spanish composer de Falla’s Suite No. 2 from “The Three-Cornered Hat.” Once again, Rachleff’s tenacity was the binding tie, eliciting an enraptured sound brimming with an immediacy evident in each harmonic flourish and resounding crescendo.

In the end, it was Rachleff who stood out, making the cohesion of a strong yet otherwise habitual set sound inspired.