By Channing Gray, Journal Arts Writer
January 25, 2009
The Rhode Island Philharmonic last night offered a rare listen to Paul Hindemith’s 1930 Concert Music of Strings and Brass, an angular score written for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. But the evening belonged to Brahms. And there was more Brahms than originally planned.
John Adams’ The Chairman Dances from his opera Nixon in China had been slated for last night’s program at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. But that called for a huge orchestra and a big price tag. In the interest of cutting costs, the Philharmonic went with Brahms’ Haydn Variations. That was paired with the composer’s magnificent violin concerto, perhaps the greatest for the instrument, with Jennifer Koh in the solo role.
This was the second time conductor Larry Rachleff has tackled the Brahms Haydn, one of the composer’s most beloved scores, and this time around he took a more relaxed, leisurely approach, a rather delicate reading that saved the fireworks for the finale when the chorale tune that the variations are based on returns in all its blazing glory.
Rachleff opened the piece with a stately, unhurried tempo, and then let the variations play out with a wonderful sense of elegance. It was a performance that was beautifully voiced, with the winds taking up the melodic line in the opening.
But the high point of the evening had to be Koh’s reading of the violin concerto, an intense, commanding performance that could be sweet one moment and searing the next. This is an epic piece and Koh brought the kind of sweep and grandeur the piece deserves. Deadlines kept me from hearing the final movement, but the long opening movement was stunning, with Koh pulling out all the stops for the sprawling cadenza.
Sandwiched between the two Brahms pieces was the Hindemith, a knotty score with acerbic harmonies and hard-edged melodies. Rachleff described the work as an unsung masterpiece, and said he felt the audience would fall for it.
“If not,” he said, “tough luck.”
The work starts out with the strings spinning out an up-beat, skipping tune and the brass responding with a somewhat somber dirge. That gave way to an animated fugue with the brass chiming in at entrances. The driving tune begins to run out of gas for a spell than returned with renewed vigor.
Before the start of the concert, Rachleff made an unusual appeal for money. That is usually left to board members. But Rachleff said that we need the arts more than ever during these dark times. And he announced the two board members, Almon Hall and Marie Langlois, were putting up a two-to-one match for any gifts received between now and the end of May.
Later, first clarinetist Ian Greitzer stepped out on the podium to thank the audience for their support in the past.
© 2009 Providence Journal