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American Rapture

Laurence Vittes, Gramophone. Click here for the original review.

The Rochester Philharmonic’s excellent calling card features premiere recordings of Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto, starring Yolanda Kondonassis, and Patrick Harlin’s Rapture, bookending an outstanding performance of Samuel Barber’s First Symphony.

Higdon’s concerto, commissioned by a consortium of orchestras from six heartland cities – in addition to Rochester (New York), the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), Baton Rouge (Louisiana), Fargo-Moorhead (North Dakota) and Lansing (Michigan) Symphony Orchestras and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra – is a delight. A shimmering ‘First Light’, an exhilarating ‘Joy Ride’, a lovely ‘Lullaby’ which develops into something lush and bright, and a concluding ‘Rap Knock’, in which musical ideas tumble out of the composer’s head before a balletic sequence with flute leads to deconstructed chaos until trumpets herald the harp finally coming to terms with the orchestra. Throughout, Kondonassis’s playing is a delicious thrill. Patrick Harlin’s nine-minute Rapture is a no less adventurous journey that leads from a series of beguiling, unconventional tunes to a final exhilarating sweep of events.

Heard after the less intense Higdon, the brutal timpani shot opening the Barber is a shock. No matter, Barber’s early flush of romantic outpouring is no less seductive than it ever has been – which is to say magnificent – with no let-up throughout its stormy, passionate 22 minutes. The playing is powerful and commanding, a calling card also for the Philharmonic’s youngest-ever music director, Ward Stare, who will be moving on after the summer of 2021.

The sound, recorded live at Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall – where three months earlier Higdon’s Harp Concerto had its first performance – captures the music with impact, eloquence and flair.