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RPO shines with pianist Jeremy Denk
Ward Stare, Jeremy Denk
Democrat and Chronicle
By Daniel J. Kushner
With the onset of the year's spookiest month and the increased awareness of dwindling daylight that typically accompanies it, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's program on Thursday was entirely fitting.
The concert, led by Music Director Ward Stare and repeating Saturday night, was bookended by shadowy works from Camille Saint-Saëns and Hector Berlioz that revel in a rather menacing humor preoccupied with unsettling imagery, from dancing skeletons to a processional to an execution and a former lover-turned-fiendish demon spirit.
While these works would have been more than enough music to satiate on any typical program, the audience was also treated to a performance of Beethoven's energetic Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major by the sought-after pianist Jeremy Denk. The piece balanced the program's overall mood, and the spirited eloquence of Denk's performance only elevated the piece's optimism.
Especially in the first movement, "Allegro con brio," Denk's clarity in the melodic line was invigorating. Stare and the ensemble projected a serene, comparatively sedate presence underneath the gymnastics of Beethoven's piano notes, which featured brilliant interplay between Denk's right and left hands as he played intersecting melody lines with great charm.
In the "Largo," Stare's deliberate, rather pensive tempo was ideal for Denk's playing, however Stare and the RPO could have been more finely tuned to the nuances of balance to further illuminate the piano and the interplay between Denk and principal clarinetist Kenneth Grant. Grant demonstrated why he is one of the orchestra's most poignant soloists, as his wistful tone was completely in sync with Denk's melodic replies.
The issues of interpretive solidarity were corrected by the third movement "Rondo." The musical banter between soloist and orchestra was more lively, with a clearer correlation made between the phrasing and musical mannerisms of the two respective groups. At the concerto's close, Denk elicited an ecstatic standing ovation from the audience, to which he responded with a tasteful encore.
Though Stare's seeming predilection for a more methodical pace proved appropriate for Beethoven, the waltz of Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, which opened the concert, felt too stately somehow, when it should have been more urgent and ominous. The conductor's ability to command beautiful collective intonation from his players was impressive, but the lack of a compelling dramatic trajectory to carry the seven-minute piece to a satisfying conclusion was disconcerting.
The RPO immediately hit its stride, though, during the "Reveries and Passions" of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz is a composer whose style can sound near-manic in its fervency, and yet Stare seemed in these moments the most at home with the music.
In the final two movements of the work, the individual instrument sections really came to life, from the funereal intro from the French horns, bassoons and timpani in "March to the Scaffold" to the downright triumphant trumpets and the oddly boisterous-bordering-on-obscene tone from the tubas and shrill oboe and clarinet duo and dramatic string glissandi during "Dream of the Witches' Sabbath."