Concert review: RPO performs "Pathétique" 

Guest conductor Fabien Gabel took to the podium in Kodak Hall on Thursday to lead the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Already a popular visiting artist -- this was Gabel's third consecutive season to guest conduct the RPO -- after this most recent performance one can only hope his presence becomes a lasting annual tradition.

In the concert opener, Alexander Scriabin's "Rêverie," Gabel elicited a full, robust sound from the orchestra that would hint at what was to come in PyotrIlyich Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6 in B Minor," set to close the program.

In the meantime, there was Johannes Brahms's Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor -- no mere filler. There was both somberness and strength in cellist Julie Albers's playing, which provided the ideal counterpoint to violinist Karen Gomyo's sparkling expressivity. Under Gabel's direction, the orchestra's collective warmth in tone was impressive and endearing. The balance of volume between the two soloists and the ensemble was near-perfect, and the orchestra's confidence and cohesion was abundantly evident.

Gabel emphasized the RPO's role as vital collaborator with the soloists, instead of relegating the orchestra to mere backing band. This symphonic vibrancy was the performance's greatest quality, and Gabel's conducting style -- grand without being ostentatious, fluid and legato yet clear -- made the sound all the more vivid.

Brahms's melodies frequently manage to be both elegant and homey at the same time, and the resulting blend in the double concerto's second movement, in particular, was sublime. But the credit doesn't go to the composer alone. The chemistry between Albers and Gomyo was much more than just perfunctory. Their performance together transcended mere rhythmic synchronicity as the two musicians matched one another's emotional pitch.

Still, the crowning achievement of the evening was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, also known as "Pathétique." The RPO's interpretation of the piece was appropriately lush. Gabel exercised exquisite control with regard to both dynamics and the momentum of the phrasing. His sense of pace during the transition between the "Adagio" and the "Allegro non troppo" of the first movement was spot-on. Additionally, the brass section sounded as formidable as I've ever heard it, especially during the ferocity of the "Allegro non troppo."

In the second movement, the energy and attentiveness to detail among the members of the orchestra was palpable. The instruments' articulations were precise, and Tchaikovsky's unfaltering melodic flow was prominent.

But the highlight came in the third of the four movements, "Allegro molto vivace." The combination of nimbleness and sheer sonic force was remarkable. This was the sound of a resplendent orchestra at the height of its powers. Gabel succeeded in stretching the expressive range of the players like never before, a greater variance in dynamics, a more complex palette of moods, and a greater unity of sound.

Unequivocally, this was the best RPO performance I've heard since I began covering the ensemble in 2013. The program repeats on Saturday, and it cannot come more highly recommended.

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