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Review: Season finale shows RPO's growth

Democrat and Chronicle

By Stuart Low

Saturday’s Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra program featured two beginnings and an end — a couple of world premieres at the close of the 2011-2012 Philharmonic series. Although the new pieces weren’t equally engaging, the concert revealed how far the RPO has come this season in its polish and precision.

Margaret Brouwer’s Caution Ahead — Guard Rail Out opened this red-letter night in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. The RPO commissioned it and surely got its money worth from this Cleveland composer.

It was a perfect curtain raiser and a neat counterpart to the concert’s final selection, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Brouwer compares her work’s flow to fleeting vistas glimpsed from a car window — a modern, four-wheel version of Mussorgsky’s museum tour.

At first hearing, Caution Ahead comes across as a sophisticated celebration of novel orchestral colors and textures. Brouwer alternates gently rippling passages with brief bursts of turbulence. Meters, dynamics and instrumental articulation shift constantly, beguiling the ear.

In the end, perhaps, you don’t feel that you’ve arrived anywhere on this musical highway. But the journey was entertaining with the RPO at the wheel. Brouwer and conductor Arild Remmereit shared an enthusiastic ovation from Saturday’s large crowd.

Olly Wilson’s Viola Concerto, dazzlingly performed by Boston soloist Marcus Thompson, was a more serious affair. Skillfully and innovatively written for the instrument, it often calls for hammered or vigorously scrubbed bow strokes that help the viola’s dark tone project. The concerto’s atonal lines tend to unfold in tight, chromatic steps — a great help to a violist zipping around this large instrument in quick runs.

Wilson, a highly acclaimed Berkeley, Calif., composer, also takes advantage of the viola’s lyrical side in the concerto’s elegiac middle section. Searing and haunted by turns, it was eloquently delivered by Thompson.

The fast outer sections, however, draw their energy from a stuttering motif that quickly outwears its welcome. There’s simply not enough of a melodic hook to carry the audience along: Wilson generates propulsion with no emotional lift-off. And murky outbursts from the brass and lower strings sometimes drown out the violist.

Wilson builds his concerto from brief, fragmentary lines that create a challenging jigsaw puzzle for conductor and orchestra. Tackling it and Brouwer’s piece on the same night must have boosted Excedrin sales for the RPO players. They gave a committed performance, but loose ends showed.

Wilson joined Thompson onstage and the audience cheered these distinguished African-American musicians.

After intermission, the RPO had the spotlight to itself for a remarkable rendition of Pictures at an Exhibtion.

Remmereit pointed up these portraits’ imaginative and grotesque aspects with great panache. The Gnome (actually a bizarre nutcracker) had a seriously nasty temper, trumped only by the violent hissy fits of Baba-Yaga (a Russian kind of Blair Witch).

Overall, the RPO sounded robust, well-balanced and responsive to Remmereit’s slightest nuances. In one year, he has brought the orchestra close to the level it enjoyed at the height of David Zinman and Jerzy Semkow’s tenures.