RPO goes for a stroll by the water

Christopher Seaman
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

A river ran through Thursday's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert - an engaging backwoods tour of central European streams and folk music.

Its centerpiece was Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"): a work just as revolutionary, in its bucolic way, as the equally familiar Symphony No. 5. Later 19th-century composers soaked up Beethoven's rapt immersion in nature. The RPO's program traced this strong Romantic current all the way to Czech master Bedrich Smetana.

Conductor Christopher Seaman led a robust, fresh-sounding performance - a real rarity with this overperformed piece. Beethoven composed it while taking long strolls through the Viennese countryside, translating its woods and fields into intimate tone paintings. It takes an effort of imagination to recapture those moods today, when "nature" often means the green zone between high-density subdivisions.

Seaman conveyed the first movement's expansive high spirits with crisp pacing and expressive phrasing from the strings and rustic winds. The Scene by the Brook also didn't meander, driven by the cellists' quickly undulating bows.

The RPO gave the third movement's earthy peasant dances a shot of home-brewed beer, adding gusto with strong accents and expertly controlled speed-ups. Seaman is too aristocratic to play an Austrian farmboy convincingly, but he swaggered tipsily on the podium.

The storm scene could have started even quieter to lend extra punch to the thunderclaps. And in the joyous Shepherd's Song, the orchestra gave an overcivilized response to Seaman's uninhibited gestures.

More folk music was in store with Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 1. This introspective, searching work was a valentine to Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer - composed just before she told Bartok she couldn't love an atheist.

Soloist William Preucil is well-known locally as a violinist in the late, lamented Cleveland Quartet at the Eastman School of Music. He's now concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Like Joseph Silverstein, a more frequent RPO guest, Preucil has the virtues of an orchestra leader and chamber music player. He complemented the RPO's ensemble with his refined, silvery voice, blending in rather than dominating.

This collegial approach worked better in the bittersweet Andante than in the Allegro giocoso, where he shortchanged bravura moments, giving staccato attacks and double-stopped chords too little crunch.

Intonation in some soaring chromatic passages was sketchy, though Preucil shone in the rhapsodic portrait of Geyer as a charmer. He had an air of unflappable confidence onstage, often stepping forward like a toreador taunting the bull.

Smetana's The Moldau from Ma vlast ("My Homeland") ended the concert with a cruise down Bohemia's main river. If Beethoven follows his brook wherever it leads, Smetana is a calculating tour guide - pointing out each castle and waterfall with nationalist pride. The RPO powered its way through his rich orchestration with aplomb.