Classical review: RPO performs "Four Last Songs" 

Music Director Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday drew from their strength for interpretation with the music of Samuel Barber, delivered what is sure to be a season highlight from Ralph Vaughan Williams, and turned to the new with contemporary composer Patrick Harlin.

The first thing you notice about Harlin's "Rapture" are the curious fragments of the whole -- the skirl of a muted trumpet, the sharp, up-bow syncopation in the violins, a restless motive for two flutes. It all created a dichotomy of anxiety and anticipation: a contradictory atmosphere that gives the listener a sonic representation of "The Rapture," named for the intense emotional moment experienced by deep-cave divers with an overwhelming desire to escape. Harlin utilizes a dazzling, diverse set of orchestral colors, which made for a vivid, "high-definition" experience. There was a gradual yet momentous buildup to a frenzied and ecstatic climax, and suddenly the piece ended.

I was left wanting more of Harlin's music -- about 20 minutes or so, actually. While this was the first time a work by the 31-year-old composer has been played by the RPO, here's hoping that a more long-form symphonic piece will appear in a future season.

Compared to the other two Barber works performed by the RPO this season -- "Adagio for Strings" and the Violin Concerto -- Symphony No. 1 is the composer at his darkest, his most unsettling. The sound was at once savage and refined.

The RPO seems destined for the music of Barber, and vice versa. The players have consistently brought their A-games to his compositions, with a distinct, rich tone and intense phrasing. An errant French horn in the symphony's final seconds was unfortunate, but it didn't detract from the totality of the piece.

Pairing Harlin and Barber in the first half was a brilliant stroke of programming. With a flurry of bold gestures from the individual instrument groups all vying for attention before converging for a simple yet emphatic motive, the "Rapture" and Symphony No. 1 are kindred spirits.

"Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis," by Vaughan Williams, begins with a singular, hypnotic quality of the central theme. The resulting swaying feeling was a bit like being rocked in a cradle, or sailing an endless ocean. Stare stretched that theme into one tender phrase as the string orchestra emitted sumptuous timbres. A smaller, nine-person ensemble situated toward the back of the stage perfectly captured a sound best described as a centuries' old legacy being unearthed and remembered -- it's faded, but somehow all the more engrossing because of it.

"Fantasia" was undoubtedly the understated revelation of the entire program: luscious textures, a profundity of focus on the part of the players, and a freshness of interpretation that can only come from a place of reverence.

The evening came to a close with Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs," with soprano Erin Wall as soloist. Using her tightly wound vibrato, the singer achieved a bright and lean upper range. These qualities helped to balance the melancholy of the songs' texts. Without the lighter vocal timbre, Wall's performance could have succumbed to melodrama.

In "September," the second of the songs, the orchestra could have been slightly quieter so that the vocalist could emerge more prominently in the musical foreground. Overall though, Wall expertly evoked the pervasive pathos of "Four Last Songs," casting a wistful look at the past as the end approaches. Strauss has captured the bittersweet moment in which the nostalgic illusion of perpetual youth is wed to the present reality of mortality.

There is a lot that could be said about this program. Fans of what Stare and the RPO have accomplished this season -- in terms of establishing ensemble unity, bolstering the brass section, and forging a new identity -- will not be disappointed.

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