After a month-long postponement in January due to the surge of the omicron variant, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director Andreas Delfs presented its towering program of two disparate symphonies by composer Ludwig van Beethoven on Thursday.
From the outset, Delfs’s pacing was unrushed, allowing the audience to fully experience the charms of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major. The work combines the composer's forcefulness — exemplified by his use of sudden outbursts of sound — with the fluid melodic sensibility of Mozart, whose style influenced Beethoven at that point in his career.
In the first movement, the violin motives were lithe and limber. In the following movement, the ensemble played with an unforced elegance, giving the music a stately vibe.
Delfs’s keen attention to the balance in dynamics enabled the subtleties in the instrumentation to come to the fore. For example, the chemistry in tone between the French horns, flutes, and timpani made for a sublime sound that might have otherwise been lost in the mix.
Other moments, though, needed greater dynamic contrast. In spots, quieter phrases could have been even more delicate, and loud passages even more bombastic, which might have made those moments sound truer to the spirit of the composer.
By the third movement, the “Menuetto,” the differences in volume were more pronounced, which gave Beethoven’s melodies more gravitas.
For the fourth-movement “Finale,” Delfs masterfully steered the tempo and phrasing of the deliberate, nuanced beginning violin theme. The conductor’s gestures on the podium had become increasingly expressive, which helped to give the closing bars of the symphony a particularly triumphant air, as demonstrated with the speed and dexterity of the violins and cellos.
By comparison, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major demonstrates a composer at the height of his symphonic powers. The overall energy is more tumultuous, and in response, the RPO sounded fuller and more robust. The string section’s phrasing was emphatic and incisive.
The score had more of the composer’s signature sense of forward momentum. As the tension in the music built, Delfs became more vociferous and exacting in his conducting, drawing out intensity from his players as if gathering a storm.
The second movement, “Allegretto,” with its iconic theme heard in such movies as “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” was played with solemn and severe beauty by the cellos, basses, and violas. By the time the flutes took up the melody, it had a more hopeful feel. Overall, Delfs emphasized the lyrical nature of the melody by encouraging a smooth approach to the phrasing.
The third movement compellingly alternated between magisterial pomp and a quaint, sprightly dance.
The final movement had an almost breakneck speed, but Delfs and the orchestra were always in control. A highlight was the brilliant interplay between violins and cellos, which made it feel like a contentious dialogue. Delfs became like a man possessed, his passion for the music not only evident in the collective sound of the orchestra but also in his effusive conducting. In totality, this was among the most energetic performances from the RPO in recent memory.
Delfs and the RPO will repeat the all-Beethoven program at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, at Kodak Hall in Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. $30-$90. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination, photo ID, and masks are required. rpo.org
Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].