Review: RPO and teenage soloist show passion, range

Simone Porter
Democrat and Chronicle

Thursday night’s Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performance at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre (repeating Saturday) was a Romantic jigsaw puzzle of an evening. Under the direction of Music Director Ward Stare, magnificent works by Wagner and Prokofiev bookended equally demanding and evocative pieces by Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber.

“Toward the Unknown Region,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with words by Walt Whitman, dovetailed nicely out of the Wagner. The composer called it a “song for chorus and orchestra,” and it’s based on Whitman’s 1885 poem, “Whispers of Heavenly Death.” The title comes from the passage, “Darest thou now, O soul, walk out with me toward the unknown region.” Hymn-like, with sweeping strings, the gorgeous blend of chorus and orchestra builds to a heavenly awesomeness. The thrilling climax showed the great passion that the combined ensembles are capable of. What joy!

In Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, 19-year-old soloist Simone Porter turned in an exciting performance. The concerto begins with a lilting horn line, creating a delicate yet powerful foundation.

"Wait," you say. How can music possibly be delicate and powerful at the same time? If any piece can, it’s this one. The first two movements are executed with restraint — they’re big and schmaltzy at times — paving the way for the frenetic conclusion. In this performance, a seamless handoff from soloist to the violin section underscored the talented Porter’s playful approach.

At the beginning of the second movement, a beautiful oboe solo — alongside the muted cellos and another haunting horn passage — set the scene for the return of the soloist. The compelling interplay between violin and horn, and then trumpets and piano, contributed to the lyrical landscape. The restraint in this movement is palpable, anticipating the intensity of the third movement.

Which, indeed, was gloriously psychotic, with killer runs but never out of control. Porter was up to the challenge, with an air of “we’ve got this” throughout the perpetual motion segment. She performed effortlessly, as if she were certain the orchestra had her back. And they were rewarded with a mid-concert standing ovation for their efforts.

Sometimes, Romantic comfort is what we need instead. And all in all, the evening offered temporary refuge from a chaotic world. 

Read the rest of the review here