Review: RPO blazes with gold-medal guest, raucous work

Ward Stare
Democrat & Chronicle

If you can’t travel to a sunny clime to lift yourself out of the winter doldrums, the sheer intensity of this week’s RPO performance might do the trick. The program, conducted by Music Director Ward Stare, features three powerful, provocative works. The concert will be repeated Saturday evening.

Thursday’s performance at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre began with Stephanie Berg’s Ravish and Mayhem. She evokes an old-world Middle Eastern bazaar, complete with danger, romance, intrigue … and elephants.

The work begins mysteriously, big and raucous, with a sassy guitar-style pizzicato and West Side Story percussion. It’s occasionally messy, but intentionally so, as a crowded market might be. It’s a quick trip to an exotic place, driven by unexpected rhythms and a whole lot of quirk.

Somber passages in the woodwinds turn uplifting and hopeful, propelled by fortissimo flute playing. Toward the end, you can almost see the elephants, courtesy of superhuman work in the trombones. Ravish and Mayhem is a swirling, whirling, cacophonous work, written in 2012, that turns out to be powerful and infectious in just the right way.

The boisterous evening continued with Vadym Kholodenko performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26. It’s the second time he has soloed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra; the 2013 Van Cliburn gold-medal winner played Prokofiev’s second piano concerto when he made his debut here in November 2014.

Kholodenko has a huge and powerful style, performing with intense vigor. He plays with the precision you would expect of a Van Cliburn winner — alternating carefully controlled freneticism with elegant restraint.

This concerto, completed in 1921, is very much of its time. Prokofiev puts the orchestra on par with the soloist, with a single clarinet establishing the Russian landscape at the outset and castanets contributing to the rising chaos by the end of the first movement.

The raucousness abates briefly in the second movement, which begins with a delicate march but quickly turns intense. The work seems almost angry, and Kholodenko delivers on the very agitated, relentless piano passages.

His playing, with sublime and effortless cadenzas, is well suited to the sense of conflict in this piece. There is great optimism yet much fear, with terrifying flute and clarinet runs contrasting with the spare defiance of the piano. 

Read the rest of the review here