Review: RPO disappoints, and then it dazzles

04:31 PM, Nov 08, 2013

Christoph Campestrini is guest conductor this week with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. (Provided by RPO)/


Written By Daniel Kushner

If you go

What: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, with guest conductor Christoph Campestrini and pianist and Eastman School of Music professor Barry Snyder.
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 at some points was at its very best. But the program that repeats Saturday, featuring compositions by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, was surprisingly uneven.

The Fairy’s Kiss: Divertimento by Igor Stravinsky is very much an unambiguous ode to Tchaikovsky, and the RPO was able to highlight Stravinsky’s brilliant ability to forge a musical narrative out of contrasting dynamics, articulations and instruments. Musicians were on-point under the clear and concise direction of guest conductor Christoph Campestrini. From the effervescent flute to pungent brass and lush strings, the orchestra’s rich tapestry of sound made for a thoroughly pleasurable beginning to the program.

What was surprising was the performance of W.A. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which sounded decidedly pedestrian.

The individually articulated notes were not as crisp. The overall sonic texture was muddied, unable to attain the clarity and crystalline precision that Mozart’s music requires. Even guest pianist Barry Snyder’s cadenza in the opening movement sounded cloudy in spots.

The concerto hinges on the poignancy and emotive subtleties of the “Adagio.” But the duet between clarinet and flute lacked energy when it should have sparked interest, and there was little chemistry between Snyder and the ensemble.

The interpretation of the last movement was no more fulfilling. The performance sounded particularly rote; here and there was the prevailing sense that no one onstage was savoring the music. In short, the tempo was perfectly stable, but the “Allegro assai” felt rushed.

What was especially odd about this uninspired performance was that — in the starkest of possible contrasts — the Mozart piece served as the predecessor to what was arguably the RPO’s greatest triumph to date this season: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. In the first movement, the orchestra immediately projected a palpable vibrancy that could be heard in every note, in the portentous clarinets and in the noble yet empathic strings.

Here, Campestrini’s direction was more sweeping and dynamic than in the previous works on the program, and it was fully manifested in a performance that captured moments both demure and bombastic — often only seconds apart — with unequivocal perfection in the orchestra.

The players ushered in the third movement with a reverberant warmth, complete with exquisite solo turns from the clarinet, bassoon and oboe, respectively. When a pizzicato theme emerged in the basses, cellos and violas about midway through the movement, the sudden change in technique was nothing short of cathartic.

The RPO continued to impress in the third movement waltz, navigating through a dizzying set of fleet 16th notes played in unison alternately by each of the two violin sections and the violas in magnificent succession. In the “Finale,” Campestrini’s direction was all forward momentum, indefatigable and fluid. The players responded in kind, vacillating between beauty and tempestuousness.

In an evening of extremely mixed results, the RPO’s rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was an absolute revelation. This is a truly profound performance that must be heard, and it may very well register as the highlight of the 2013-14 season.