By Patrick Valentino
Providence, RI; 27 February 2010. At Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium, Music Director Larry Rachleff confidently led the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra in an ambitious, yet accessible program fittingly entitled ‘Captivating Colors’. The musical fare for the evening was the tone poem, a genre wherein composers, virtual aural artists, strive to paint a dramatic scene or evoke a specific scenario or emotion. The musical offerings also created a kind of meal of their own, one with fresh and original combinations of taste and texture.
This meal began with the avian appetizer Oiseaux Exotiques by Olivier Messiaen, featuring Rhode Island’s own Jason Hardink at the piano. It is indeed an ambitious; some would say risky, way for a regional orchestra to open a concert, what with Messiaen’s fragmentary sonic explosions, flittering bird calls, and eastern-inspired percussion effects. The gastronomic equivalent would be something like an assortment of wild bird eggs, served with a selection of piquant sauces, which one must eat while blindfolded, so as not to ruin the surprise. But it remains a piece, if an orchestra is able to pull it off, which must be heard more frequently. RIPO was more than capable.
The economical ensemble of 10 winds, percussion, and a concerto-like piano part performed not only with rhythmical cohesion but a real sensitivity toward Messiaen’s sound world (Mr. Rachleff mentioned in a post-concert talk how he would like to perform more Messiaen with RIPO, and upon hearing Oiseaux Exotiques one feels they are already ahead of the game in understanding where Messiaen is coming from artistically). Mr. Rachleff led the group through a prickly mélange of tempi and shifting meters with such natural grace one would think he had written the piece himself. Perfectly in step with the ensemble’s pulse and gesture was Mr. Hardink, a Rhode Island native and Messiaen scholar. It was a treat to hear the piece to masterfully performed, and to see RIPO’s dedication to showcasing homegrown heroes.
After this kaleidoscopic opening, the full orchestra filled the stage for the main course, a thick steak of Russian bear: Rachmaninov’s masterful Isle of the Dead. Based on Böcklin’s famous painting, this impressive artistic statement is perhaps the finest music that Rachmaninov ever produced. Cast in long, dark lines set off by mindless, undulating rhythms, the 20-minute work is essentially comprised of two massive breaths, wherein extreme yet controlled intensity inevitably pushes toward devastating climaxes. The pacing in the orchestra was commendable, and occasional tuning issues were forgiven in gratitude for being taken on the journey so magnificently.
After intermission, the palate was cleansed with Sibelius’s neglected tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise. With typical Nordic breadth and space, Sibelius takes us on a long and tumultuous sleigh ride which culminates in a heavenly dawn. Sibelius is much harder to play than one would suspect by listening, and again the Philharmonic delivered. Special commendation should be given to the strings for tuning and rhythmic precision, and the horn section for navigating the treacherous chorale near the end.
The meal which began with shockingly rewarding exoticism, that brought us through the gamut of human experience from the depths of the underworld to the heavenly glow, was about to come to a close. What better way to round out the evening than a double espresso, perhaps with a shot or two of schnapps slipped in for good measure. The concert came to a rousing and rambunctious climax with Strauss’ Till Eulenspielgel’s Merry Pranks. A tour de force for any orchestra, RIPO performed the best they had all evening, nimbly navigating the rapidly shifting scenes of the menacing prankster’s exploits.
Throughout the whole evening, Mr. Rachleff not only guided the orchestra but also the audience, prefacing each piece with a sentence or two to set the mood and prepare the ear. At a time when pre-concert comments are still considered a new thing, this was very welcome and the audience appreciated it. One gets a sense of the intense pride these Rhode Islanders have for the arts, evidenced by a sunny financial update before the concert and the embracing of Mr. Hardink’s pianistic perfection. They also trust Rachleff to bend their ears – a bit. Although the Messiaen was warmly received, during an informal talk after the show one patron asked the inevitable question: whether Mr. Hardink knows any Chopin. One supposes it would be a similar situation anywhere.
A quick look at the orchestra’s website shows Mr. Rachleff’s dedication to innovative programming, and his desire to gently lead the orchestra and the audience into a larger world of musical experience. With a capable ensemble always striving to improve, an energized and optimistic audience base, and a visionary and caring Music Director, anything is possible, and the sky’s the limit!