Review: RPO guest conductor Junichi Hirokami shines

04:08 PM, Nov 15, 2013

Junichi Hirokami is the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's guest conductor this week. (Provided by Tennant Artists)/


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented its most stylistically varied concert of the season thus far on Thursday, with a performance of music by Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff that repeats Saturday.

From guest conductor Junichi Hirokami’s demonstrative, almost frantic opening gestures, it was clear that this rendition of Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass —the RPO’s first performance of the work — would be vigorous.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the composition is the contrast between the brass section’s expansive, menacing tone and the frenetic perpetual motion of the strings section. The work is sweeping without being sentimental; it is grand without being self-indulgent. Hirokami’s direction was riveting, his arms often flailing about purposefully to communicate the composer’s irrepressible momentum.

In Part II of the work, Hindemith’s idiomatic writing features brilliant interplay, with punchy trumpets and trombones and free-flowing violins. Hirokami was thrilling to watch, and his animated conducting was the lifeblood of the performance. In fact, he frequently looked as though he were pulling the sound from the stage, out into the theater behind him. Unfortunately, there were times in which the technically sound RPO did not match his energy.

In Strauss’ Oboe Concerto in D Major, a smaller iteration of the orchestra was joined by RPO principal oboist Erik Behr as soloist. He demonstrated excellent phrasing and an ear for legato throughout the performance, with the orchestra’s playing appropriately understated and elegant.

Behr’s approach to the nuances of Strauss’ exquisite melodies was quasi-operatic, with the kind of tuneful clarity and limber articulation one might hear in a memorable aria. While his performance projected a sense of freedom throughout most of the work, there were moments spent in the oboe’s upper register in which the tone sounded pinched and shrill.

As for the evening’s focal point, there is an abundant tenderness in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, a quality that Hirokami elicited beautifully from the orchestra. The RPO’s fullness of sound was a delight to hear, as the players executed the composer’s tremulant swells with a poignancy that can sometimes get lost in Rachmaninoff’s music.

Once again, Hirokami’s emotive style was the defining characteristic on which all depended; without his innate understanding of the musical language, the performance could have fallen flat. Instead, the conductor’s intensity gave rise to a profound joy that elevated the symphony in a way that the mere notes on the page could not.

Unfortunately, particularly in the third movement, the full force of the sound as felt by Hirokami was not always heard in the orchestra’s playing. Where the music should have felt all-consuming, it merely sounded pretty. At other times, however, the conductor’s utterly charming style — which he frequently demonstrated by dancing about the podium — was reciprocated by the ensemble.

Ultimately, despite a slightly uneven interpretation by the orchestra, Hirokami showed himself to be a most engaging conductor. At the close of the composition, the audience responded with an unequivocal standing ovation. Once again, an RPO guest conductor had triumphed.

If you go

If you go

What: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, with guest conductor Junichi Hirokami.

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.