Review: Guest conductor Fabien Gabel leads the RPO with style and charm

02:57 PM, Jan 31, 2014

Paris-born Fabien Gabel is the guest conductor this weekend with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo provided by the RPO)/


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

If you go
What: RPO presents “An Evening in Paris” with guest conductor Fabien Gabel, violinist Philippe Quint.
When: 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 1.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $92; $10 for students.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or rpo.org.

In a departure from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s frequent explorations of German Romanticism, Thursday’s concert, which repeats Saturday, was largely a jaunt into turn-of-the-century French modernism.

First up in the program, led by Paris-born guest conductor Fabien Gabel in his professional U.S. debut, was Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Though the tenderly played flute solo that opens the piece faltered slightly from flat intonation, it was Gabel’s performance that proved most memorable.

The conductor drew the music out of the performers delicately, as if plucking the sympathetic strings of an elaborate and oversized instrument. As Debussy’s music gradually became more effusive, warmth and sensitivity emanated from the strings section.

For Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, the audience was introduced to violin soloist Philippe Quint. Exhibiting a quiet charisma and fluid phrasing, Quint was intuitive without being sentimental, demonstrative without being egotistical.

One got the sense that Gabel gave substantial deference to Quint’s sense of pacing and melodic shaping, demonstrating that Gabel is a conductor whose supreme control allows him to get out of the music’s way, in an effort to draw attention to the composition’s individual merits.

Quint and Gabel relished every note and emphasized the climax in every phrase. Quint’s 1708 Stradivari violin — which was once played by Pablo de Sarasate, the violinist who premiered this very concerto in 1881—produced a dark tone in the lower register, with a rare, shimmering timbre akin to that of a coloratura soprano when played higher along its neck. By the end of the concerto, there was a oneness between Quint and the orchestra, an uncommon yet welcome phenomenon.

Then the RPO for the first time ever tackled Maurice Ravel’s A Boat on the Ocean — and it was truly hypnotic. Gabel’s ability to summon remarkable dynamic contrasts was mesmerizing, eliciting a delicacy not always achieved by the RPO; the collective sound was reduced to a mere whisper before erupting into a roar that was savagely beautiful.

Quint returned to the stage for Ravel’s Tzigane (Gypsy). The violinist’s interpretation was elusively sensual, yet palpably melancholic, evoking the image of a solitary and mysterious free spirit.

The evening closed with The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky, unfortunately the most uneven performance of the program. Minor intonation issues cropped up, as they have in other concerts, this time in the French horns and violins. At the beginning of the work’s unforgettable third movement, “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei,” the orchestra was slow to settle into the ferocity and precision that is so essential, though Gabel was able to sharpen the focus sufficiently to make the section compelling overall.

Then in the piece’s “Finale,” Gabel generated a fullness of sound from the orchestra that is unparalleled in the current RPO season so far. A clearly enraptured audience had witnessed a special musician at work. This concert must be heard, on the merits of Gabel’s stunning rendering of “A Boat on the Ocean” alone.