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Christopher Seaman kicks off last season with RPO

Christopher Seaman
Democrat and Chronicle

By Anna Reguero

Orchestras tend to open a season with a blockbuster repertoire and a high-profile soloist. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra hasn't always gone that direction. The last few years, the RPO has pulled from its own talented pool to celebrate opening night.

This season, which opened Thursday with a concert that repeats tonight, opened with an accomplished guest soloist (pianist Ilya Itin), but not one who is highly recognizable.

Like last year, when the draw was the completion of important renovations to Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, there's no need to bring on the star power this soon. This is the last season for the RPO's beloved music director, Christopher Seaman, and he was definitely the draw for opening night.

With a successor already named — Arild Remmereit — there was already a feeling on Thursday evening that this season will be fully devoted to celebrating Seaman, the RPO's longest-serving music director. The celebration coincided with finishing details to the Eastman Theatre, which includes a new café area on the ground level. Boisterous applause greeted Seaman as he took the stage, and the audience immediately joined in on an enthusiastic rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The drum roll upbeat seemed to equal a gun shot, announcing Seaman's ticking clock with the RPO. The British conductor announced a year ago that this would be his 13th and final season.

The program fit the occasion, too. English composer Elgar's Cockaigne opened the concert, a work tied to Seaman's cultural roots. It's a sunny work with a sarcastic title that depicts metropolitan London in Edwardian times. The orchestra could have been more exacting in its quicker, rhythmical passages, but Seaman was nonetheless able to bring about the joyous spirit of the work.

Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 is a traditional showpiece piano concerto, with all the bells and whistles (no pun on the unusually exposed triangle part) to delight audiences. This concert was the RPO's first time performing with Itin, a Russian pianist with a long list of competition wins. He accurately picked off big chords at all ends of the piano and navigated the keyboard with ease. Despite Itin's thin frame, he has a heavy touch on the piano, which helped him project, but also could have been lighter in tender areas of the work. When combined with a heavy foot on the piano's pedal, it muddied up his excellent technique. (I overheard him saying something about the piano's soft pedal during a rehearsal.)

The blockbuster of the night, however, was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, a work that won Seaman a timpani job with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 22. The brass section performed triumphantly, each soloist shone and the entire orchestra played with precision and emotion. It was as if the orchestra offered its best playing to Seaman to honor him as he kicks off his final year with the RPO.