RPO excels with Russian music

Christopher Seaman
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

By Anna Reguero

The title of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's concert this week is "Russian Masters," but most of the composers on the program aren't the first Russians who come to mind.

There was nothing by Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Rimsky-Korsakov or Prokofiev.

Yet while Sibelius and Glazunov, whose works were on the first half of the RPO's program Thursday that repeats tonight in Kodak Hall, aren't the best known Russian composers, their works exhibited all there is to love about Russian music, including theatrical storytelling and deep expression.

The concert's finale — Stravinsky's Petrouchka — is, of course, a true Russian masterpiece. The orchestra performed meticulously, much of it thanks to Christopher Seaman's economical conducting.

Sibelius' Suite from "Karelia," which opened the program, is the kind of work with which Seaman excels.

While meant as active music to accompany stage plays, the music is still reserved, and Seaman kept an easy pace throughout.

He asked for the orchestra to hold back more than it's used to, which was the key to the work's refinement. The suite began curiously in the distance, with French horns switching between whispering muted and unmuted horn calls.

The first movement gradually opened up into a fully blown, but metered march. The second was more lyrical, with a nicely projected solo by English hornist Anna Steltenpohl.

The third movement, while peppier than the others, again featured restrained trumpet calls and quickly diminishing loud moments, particularly well done by the cymbal player.

Glazunov's Violin Concerto exhibits its own understatements. While romantically melodious, it wanders and weaves around impressionistically, with lots of opportunity for a soloist's personalized interpretation.

Juliana Athayde, the orchestra's concertmaster and featured soloist this evening, appeared in a lovely teal dress and a sparkling barrette, and as she started to play, she relaxed and milked extremely sweet sounds from all ranges of her instrument throughout the 20-minute work that has few breaks for the soloist.

During one cadenza, when she played both a melody and undulating accompaniment simultaneously, she especially impressed.

Still, playing more to the audience instead of directing her playing mostly to Seaman — as if helping the orchestra follow the meandering melodies — would have aided in her projection throughout the hall.

Athayde also didn't take full advantage of the work's freewheeling nature in her interpretation, which she kept mostly steady.

After intermission, the RPO's woodwind and brass players performed superbly in Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Particularly standout was, again, Steltenpohl, who performed with an ominous character, and Douglas Prosser, who nailed the trumpet solos.

Petrouchka is the story of three puppets in the midst of a grand Russian fair. The orchestra did a tremendous job switching between the two perspectives, from the miniature puppets to the bustling fair.

The RPO pulled out Tchaikovsky, the "Pas de deux" from the Nutcracker, to end the evening in a feel-good manner.