RPO concert marked by flutist Gilbert’s graceful virtuosity

Jahja Ling
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

The two attractions of Thursday's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert seemed poles apart: an intimate Danish concerto and a monumental symphony from Stalin's Soviet Union.

But soloist Rebecca Gilbert's graceful virtuosity in Carl Nielsen's Flute Concerto and guest conductor Jahja Ling's powerful, dark-tinged reading of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 made this odd program a rewarding package.

Nielsen's 1926 work is a quiet giant in the tiny group of regularly performed flute concertos. It was written as a character study of its dedicatee, Copenhagen flutist Holger Gilbert-Jespersen, who'd played in Nielsen's new Wind Quintet.

Like that masterpiece, it is essentially a chamber work where the soloist often teams up (or skirmishes) with two or three other players. Think of a dinner party dominated by a particularly lively conversationalist - a slightly hyper guest who gossips with his pals and then breaks into wonderfully flaky monologues.

It was a congenial role for Gilbert, the RPO's principal flutist. She bantered collegially with the bass trombone, clarinet and timpani, then stepped into the limelight for brief mini-cadenzas. Her tone was assertive but never strident, and she moved nimbly through Nielsen's tricky jigsaw rhythms.

Her pastoral piping in the moody Allegretto sounded sprightly. In the finale, she easily overpowered the solo trombone - which, in a characteristic Nielsen touch, blows raspberries at her. She got an enthusiastic ovation.

After intermission, the Shostakovich received a first-rate rendition by the RPO and Ling, the San Diego Symphony's maestro.

It was written in 1937, when the composer was under attack from Soviet bureaucrats for using a taboo "formalist" style. He called his new symphony "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism." But today, it's nearly impossible to hear it as anything but a bleak, sardonic portrait of the Stalinist era.

Using a clear, incisive baton style, Ling gave free rein to its melodic richness while maintaining an urgent rhythmic drive. He kept the textures so transparent and lean in the hushed Largo, you could practically hear the Russian wind blowing through it. And he unleashed plenty of raw energy for the finale - a heroic clash of forces that Stalin actually might have enjoyed.