Sometimes a splashy title can promise more than an event actually delivers. In the case of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Opening Night Celebration, however, the concert hype was well deserved. Combining the electrifying stage presence of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg with a lively program, the RPO’s gala concert, held Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Eastman Theatre, was an exciting season opener.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the violin soloist for the Opening Night Celebration, was an obvious choice for this event. Possibly the best-known soloist to perform this season with RPO, Salerno-Sonnenberg is famous ? or infamous ? for her fiery, often aggressive stage presence. Audiences and critics either love Nadja or hate her, but she is certainly a captivating figure, a “rogue” of sorts in the world of violin soloists.
Salerno-Sonnenberg was her usual self at the RPO’s opening night event. She appeared on stage in a rather eclectic outfit, as is her trademark ? skin-tight red pants and a black tank top. She performed two full concerti ? the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e minor and the Bach Concerto No. 1 in a minor. Both were played with a full, expressive sound and plenty of virtuosic tempi, not to mention a large number of foot-stomps.
Of the two concerti, the Bach concerto was best served by Salerno-Sonnenberg’s style. Though performance-practice experts might object to her use of a romantic sound while playing a baroque concerto, the work was exciting, with a driving pulse in the outer, faster movements and lovely, expansive phrasing in the slow movement.
Christopher Seaman, Music Director of the RPO and conductor of Saturday’s performance, led the orchestra from the harpsichord. He seemed in his element at the keyboard, and the orchestra, particularly the basso continuo section, which responded with a lively, vigorous accompaniment. This performance was perhaps the most exciting rendering of this work that I have heard.
The Mendelssohn concerto, well-served by Salerno-Sonnenberg’s stunning technique, was nonetheless less successful than the Bach. The tempi of the first movement were very fast, and Salerno-Sonnenberg’s otherwise beautiful sound occasionally faded to inaudibility in sections of both the first and second movements.
She seemed interested in achieving a romantic effect through fast tempi and dramatic dynamics. This kind of sound, however, might have been bettersuited to a work like the Brahms concerto rather than an essentially classical piece like the Mendelssohn. Despite the soloist’s rather whirlwind tempi, Christopher Seaman’s clear, precise conducting kept the orchestra in line with Salerno-Sonnenberg.
Also on the program was a showcase for the RPO’s brass section, a piece written for two brass choirs by Andrea Gabrieli. The antiphonal choirs, located on the stage and in the audience section of the theater, played admirably. Their sound was well-blended, clear and appropriately mellow for a work of the 16th century, at which time brass instruments did not possess the dynamic range of modern instruments.
The orchestra ended the program with Ottorino Resphigi’s “Pines of Rome.” A showcase for the orchestra, with scoring that is colorful, exciting and accessible, this piece was an excellent choice for the gala concert. The principal woodwinds sounded wonderful in their solos, particularly clarinetist Kenneth Grant in the famous “nightingale” solo. Seaman’s conducting was clear and confident, and the orchestra responded with glowing colors and thunderous climaxes.
With such a strong start to the season, Eastman and the Rochester community can expect good things from the RPO in the months to come. Soloists Leila Josefowicz and Mischa Dichter, among others, will appear with the orchestra, as well as guest conductors like David Lockington. The orchestra will be performing works from the standard repertoire, including symphonies by Beethoven and Haydn, as well as a number of 20th century works.
Wagman can be reached at email@example.com.