The world premiere of American composer Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto, performed by soloist Yolanda Kondonassis, had already made last night’s Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert one of the more anticipated events of the season. The RPO’s performance, capably led by Music Director Ward Stare, more than fulfilled the promise of the program.
There are few compositions as ingenious and evocative as Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes.” Britten is a composer who demands a challenging blend of exactitude and lyricism of the musicians who interpret his work. The result is often music that is equally majestic and unsettling. From the haunting opening melody in the violins and the woodwinds’ foreboding, arpeggiated response onward, the powerful articulation and heartfelt phrasing gives the music added poignancy.
Stare’s leadership was clear and precise, and the orchestra responded in kind. By the fourth interlude, entitled “Storm: Presto con fuoco,” the strings stung, and the brass section sounded a kind of ominous war cry. The savage cruelty evidenced in the opera “Peter Grimes” felt embedded in the notes, as the piece ended in a menacingly seductive atmosphere.
At the outset of Higdon’s Harp concerto, ambiguous expectation permeated the air. What started out as a somewhat muted affair quickly became a sweeping scape with symphonic tendencies. Higdon was keen to showcase the harp’s naturally rich harmonic colors, and there was something prayerful about Kondonassis’s playing, particularly in the quieter moments.
A rare moment in the concert-going experience immediately followed the first movement, when Kondonassis promptly announced that she had to replace one of her harp strings –lest it break during the performance — before continuing with the remainder of the world premiere. After an enlightening commentary on the ever-worrisome shortage of quality cow gut in Europe (from which the best harp strings are made) and a quick tune-up, Kondonassis and company continued on undeterred.
The concerto’s second movement, “Joy Ride,” began with a hypnotic descending scale on the harp, amid the bustling sounds of the orchestra. Sonically, the presence of Kondonassis’s harp seemed to signify magic at work, in the throes of a hectic and sobering reality, as played by the orchestra.
For the next movement, the inspired “Lullaby,” Kondonassis’s mystical harp began a gorgeous dialogue with solo viola, before flute, cello, melodic percussion, and additional woodwinds joined the interplay. The vibraphone and bells reinforced the divine character of Kondonassis’s tone, and something akin to Renaissance song in Higdon’s melodies only heightened the mystery.
“Rap Knock,” the concerto’s final movement, felt bizarre, a postmodern outlier that almost seemed out of place next to the comparative control and serenity of the previous three movements. Surrounded by boisterous orchestral outbursts, Higdon wrote crystalline melodic passages for Kondonassis that were quickly blindsided by dissonant swipes at the harp’s strings. The previously conventional concerto acquired a welcome avant-garde, dance-like quality.
The concert concluded with Johannes Brahms’s inexhaustible Symphony No. 2. Brahms excelled at imbuing the orchestra with a warm, almost choral sound, replete with a rich harmonic vocabulary. His second symphony is no different.
Stare gave an especially charismatic and tenacious performance here, and the flow of the ensemble felt effortless. The music had an undeniable jubilance, and no one seemed to be enjoying it more.than Stare, who moved about the podium in an indefatigable series of hops. The fortitude and stamina exhibited by the RPO in the concert’s finale was nothing short of impressive.
As a whole, this was a polished and powerful showing by Stare and his coterie of musicians. If anything, the performance further demonstrated that the RPO should be interpreting even more works from the 20th century and beyond.