The Andreas Delfs era has officially begun for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
On Thursday, Delfs conducted his first RPO Philharmonics concert as music director to kick off the 2021-22 season.
Though Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre was far from filled, the audience was receptive, and Delfs and company treated them to an auspicious, if subtle, first performance.
Richard Wagner’s "Dawn and & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” — like all of the “Ring Cycle” composer’s works — had the feeling of inevitability, the unbreakable power of fate. Delfs honored that feeling through deliberate tempo choices that allowed the cellos and violins to indulge in the Romantic fever dream that is Wagner’s music.
Like the opening Wagner piece, Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto featured effusive melodies and inexorable rhythms that felt unstoppable. But unlike Wagner’s dense, harmonically rich textures, Higdon’s orchestral arrangements were thinner, more ethereal.
Guest violinist Benjamin Beilman was tasked with interpreting the contemporary composer’s virtuosic but frantic solo passages. Higdon’s writing requires athletic playing from the musician, who must traverse dissonant melodies and acrobatic slides up and down the strings.
Beilman was always in control, however, and his precision lost none of the music’s passion in the process. As the first movement launched into a torrid, stratospheric section for the strings that recalled Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” Beilman played like a man possessed.
Delfs gave the musicians room for their own emotional interpretations of the music, too. He guided them in the rhythmic arc, paying close attention to nuanced pauses and articulations in phrases, but the particular way the notes sang between those musical signposts was left up to the musicians.
Higdon’s Violin Concerto is an undeniably thorny composition — and a very interesting choice by Delfs. Music directors typically relegate the less familiar modern compositions by living composers to the opening spot in a concert; the orchestra plays a brief 10-minute piece that’s new to a traditional classical audience before moving on to a beloved work by an iconic, long dead composer.
Instead, Delfs challenged the audience with Higdon’s 30-minute, avant-garde-leaning concerto. The audience rewarded Delfs and Beilman with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
During the orchestra’s performance of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, one of Delfs’s greatest assets as a musician — his sense of time — came to the fore. His pacing was intuitive, allowing him to extract the most musicality out of each phrase.
Over the last six years covering the RPO, I’ve witnessed the gradual cohesion of the orchestra’s sound. I began to notice it at the beginning of Ward Stare’s tenure as music director as he led the ensemble in the neo-Romantic symphonies and concerti of Samuel Barber.
But as Delfs led the group in interpreting Brahms, they came closer still to achieving that collective voice.
Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.