Though I really like the Lourdes High School auditorium for Rochester Symphony concerts, this Saturday evening’s, held in the Mayo Civic Center Preservation Hall, felt like the entirely comfortable return to an old friend.
Titled “1919,” the program highlighted three works, all of which had a connection to that year -- the founding year of the Rochester Symphony, which is celebrating its centennial this year.
The first was Edward Elgar’s now-iconic Concerto in E Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 85, composed during the summer of 1919. I found this performance, with former Rochester native Joseph Kuipers as soloist, entirely captivating. His chair and gaze focused directly outward, into and past the audience, he laid claim to his instrument, physically, musically and emotionally, with zen-like yet passionate calm. To my eyes and ears, he did not merely breathe life into his beautiful-looking and honey-sounding cello, but he breathed all of it, making pulse, space and silence a foil for the music. His great technical mastery allowed him to step back and focus intentionally on full, rounded interpretation.
I particularly liked his use of vibrato, which you can see as the left hand moves quickly to create a warm, vibrating sound. He did not universally use or overuse it, but apparently borrowed from his work as a Baroque performer where, as scholar Robert Stowell says, vibrato “was employed sparingly and discreetly to enhance special moments in the music.” This could be heard in the Elgar when Kuipers leaned into his right hand bow stick at the beginning of a note or phrase, relying on that for expression, while ending that note or phrase with vibrato. To me, this made his Elgar interpretation that much more interesting and varied.
If you compare Kuipers’ Elgar with online videos of Jacqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma, you will see them using vibrato nearly continuously, and in traditional formal attire. Kuipers represents a new kind of young musician, hip-but-elegant in dress and imposing his own read on vibrato.
The orchestra supported Kuipers and Elgar well, with its passionate, elegiac yearning harkening back to pre-war times.
Next up was French composer Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde (The Creation of the World), a 15-minute, six-part ballet, whose post-World War I inception dates to his increasing interest in jazz, starting around 1919. The work was premiered in Paris in 1923. Scored for a small, wind- and brass-heavy 18-instrument grouping, the size also likely represents the trend toward smaller ensembles due to decreased human and financial resources after both the war and the Spanish Influenza of 1918.
Huge kudos to the Symphony for choosing this work. Though not the easier listening of beloved classical chestnuts, Création is a rich and iconic work of the twentieth century. It is extremely challenging in terms of coherently pulling together its six short-but-connected sections and their different rhythmic and timbral elements (unusual combinations of instruments used to create unique sounds, like a shimmering effect, for example). Personally, I felt the work to be slightly under-rehearsed and hesitant, and from where I was sitting, unbalanced at times, but the ensemble was definitely able to convey the meat of it, and there were many strong moments. Again, a difficult work, and huge kudos to Jere Lantz for taking it on.
The final piece of the evening was Igor Stravinsky’s Suite (one of three!) from his music for the 1910 ballet The Firebird, which was premiered in Paris by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and cemented Stravinsky’s rise as both a Diaghilev staple, and as the hot new composer to watch. The orchestra did a fine job with Stravinsky’s shifting tonal colors, and with its great slashes and swoops of sound, there was wonderful work by the woodwinds, and in spite of several horn mishaps, the brass managed to pull off the magnificent bell-like tolling at the end.