Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Azica Debut

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

This Friday Azica Records will release its first recording of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The ensemble is led by Ward Stare, who became its Music Director on September 1, 2014. The title of the new recording is American Rapture; and, as is usually the case, it is currently available for pre-order through its Web page on Amazon.com. The Wikipedia page for this group gives it the abbreviation “RPO;” but I have taken that to be the “nickname” for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for so long that I find reference to any other symphony orchestra to be confusing! Furthermore, the Rochester group has recorded under a variety of different names, the one best known to me having come from the many Mercury recordings of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson; but Hanson was never the ensemble’s Music Director.

Nevertheless, through Hanson’s recordings, the Rochester band became recognized nationally (if not internationally) as a platform for the performance of new compositions, particularly works by American composers. I was therefore delighted to see that the ensemble’s Azica debut featured two world premiere recordings by two generations of American composers. The “main attraction” of the album is the harp concerto that Jennifer Higdon (born in 1962) completed last year, written for and dedicated to the virtuoso harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. This concerto begins the album, which concludes with one of the young American composers currently on the rise, Patrick Harlin (born in 1984). He is represented by “Rapture,” inspired by experiences described by James Tabor in his book Blind Descent, which explores the practices of “extreme” cave exploration. Between these two offerings is a new recording of one of the pieces that Hanson had previously recorded on Mercury, Samuel Barber’s Opus 9 (first) symphony.

I have to say that I tend to have the same reaction every time I encounter one of Higdon’s compositions. It is always tinged with sadness at the realization of how seldom I have an opportunity to listen to her music in performance; and, unless I am mistaken, the recording of her Dance Card suite by the Chicago Sinfonietta for their Project W album has been my only encounter of her music on a CD. While this album may present her as an “earlier generation” composer, there is a freshness to her approach to the harp that I found perfectly delightful. (I particularly liked her introduction of tone clusters in the last of the concerto’s four movements.) Given that Kondonassis has clearly established her career, I can only hope that she will take this concerto “on the road” when she visits other ensembles as guest artist.

“Rapture,” on the other hand, is one of those rare instances of music inspired by non-fiction that does not get bogged down by the details of the source content. “Extreme” caving is one of those experiences in which stimuli tend to be as minimal as can possibly be imagined. When sensory organs are so deprived, they often compensate by generating signals of their own not related to external activation. This is the phenomenon that Tabor addresses in Blind Descent, and Harlin does an impressive job of realizing through instrumental resources how one reacts to that phenomenon. Mind you, Harlin’s account is, in no way “clinical;” but he goes a long way to establishing a mood in which the attentive listener will appreciate that “reality” is not always what our sensory organs deliver to mind’s “cognitive processing.”

Regular readers probably know that I had been “prepped” to listen to Barber’s symphony by having encountered a rip-snorting account of it when James Gaffigan visited the podium of the San Francisco Symphony at the end of last month. That performance reminded me of how much fun I used to have with the old Hanson recording, back when I was a callow undergraduate. For better or worse, just about every music teacher I encountered was determined to let me know that it was time to put away childish things. That seems to have been an opinion that prevailed strongly enough that the only Web page that Amazon.com has for that Hanson recording is for the old vinyl release.

Fortunately, thanks to the Canadian West Hill Radio Archives label, I was able to revisit an impressive number of “air check” recordings of Barber’s music around the beginning of this decade. They included both the original version of the symphony (Artur Rodziński conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra) and the revised version (Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic), the version that Gaffigan conducted. In this context I am happy to report that Stare is right up there with both Walter and Gaffigan. His reading of the score is not shy about the impetuous energy of Barber’s rhetoric, but it also shows an appreciation of how Barber successfully distilled his four-movement structure into a single movement, culminating in a throughly convincing account of the passacaglia around which the finale is structured. If this recording marks a “new day” for the Rochester Philharmonic, then attentive listeners should be looking forward to subsequent releases.

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