Orchestra In Dire Need Of Fixes Found Its Man In Tested Maestro Delfs

Andreas Delfs in rehearsal for his first program as music director of the Rochester Philharmonic. (Photo by Tyler Cervini)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It was a simple but inclusive way to start Andreas Delfs’ inaugural concert as the music director of the Rochester Philharmonic. Two search committee members explained how Delfs was chosen. The main priorities were someone with demonstrated artistic skills and the ability to be a transformational leader on and off the podium. The pandemic shutdown restricted their choices to past (known) guest conductors. In January 2020, they approached Delfs, who had guest-conducted often since 1994. He thought it over for a few days, said yes, and signed a five-year contract in June 2020, but announcement of his appointment was withheld until January, when the pandemic eased and hope grew for a 2021-22 season.

Those two priorities sound generic, but they weren’t. After 16 months of a music director with supreme artistic gifts and alienating leadership skills (Arild Remmereit, 2011-12) followed by seven years of one with superb programming ideas but weak podium presence and orchestra maintenance skills (Ward Stare, 2014-21), the orchestra was in need of “some orchestral housekeeping and hygiene,” Delfs said with gentle diplomacy. Judging from his opening set of concerts Sept. 23 and 25, it didn’t take long.

After studying at the Hamburg Conservatory and Juilliard, Delfs, 62, served as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and then as music director of the Bern Opera and general music director of Hannover (symphony and opera) from 1996 to 2000. He was music director of the Milwaukee Symphony from 1997 to 2009 and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2001 to 2004. Instead of being itinerant, he established homes in Europe and America, including Trumansburg, N.Y., near Ithaca, where he has close relatives. Since 2009, he has conducted widely in Europe and taught at Temple University in Philadelphia.

After 18 months of shutdown, Delfs chose to open with a sunrise, Wagner’s “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” and to close with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, with its sunrise finale. After leaving the first three movements sitting for 20 years, Brahms saw a sunrise that finally inspired the famous horn call that is key to the last movement. Between the Wagner and Brahms, Delfs chose Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, albeit rarely peformed, Violin Concerto (2008). In 2018, the RPO and Yolanda Kondonassis performed the world premiere of Higdon’s Harp Concerto, winner of the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Delfs said he prefers a “pedigree” in orchestras, programs, and guest artists. He describes the RPO’s sound as having dark, rich strings that come from its years with music directors Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman (whose sound Delfs describes as more European than American), and Jerzy Semkow. He likes the individuality of the RPO’s winds and the coherent bronze color of its brass sound. He also likes a “chamber music sound” that comes from players reacting to one another, not just to the maestro.

Benjamin Beilman was soloist in Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto.

Conducting the Wagner without a score, Delfs was true to his word. There was a transparent, chamber-like quality as the cellos, then violas, then violins emerged from dawn to Siegfried’s sun-lit journey. The ensemble and tone of the cellos was the richest I’ve ever heard from them. With his feet firmly planted on the podium, Delfs’ gestures were precise, natural, and full, not theatrical. He conveyed exactness and point of view, if not spontaneity — though one didn’t have to wait long for that.

Benjamin Beilman, 31, has a long association with Hidgon’s Violin Concerto. He was a first violinist in the Curtis Institute’s orchestra, with whom Hidgon test-ran her concerto; in 2012, Beilman performed it in South Dakota and Glen Falls, N.Y., and more recently in Sydney and Montpellier.

Higdon might as well have called her work a Concerto for Violin and Concerto for Orchestra. Its opening is merely a scale, but here, over an airy gamelan-like percussion bed, violin notes shoot over an octave up and down. The second theme’s hot, swinging pulse compelled Delfs to unleash the orchestra — Hidgon’s syncopations had him in the groove. Colorful and exacting as the orchestra was, it was Beilman who was a charismatic force of intense lyricism. I find Higdon’s music more angular and rhythmically barbed than lyrical, but even in the simple introduction, Beilman was aiming for the lyrical, which blossomed sweetly in the first full theme. He even found the singing line in Higdon’s jagged, virtuosic cadenza.

The “Chaconni” movement opened with principal cellist Ahrim Kim’s gorgeous solo over refined orchestral balances. Nothing was left dangling. Beilman followed with a series of mini-rhapsodies over the chaconnes. I find the movement wearing with no memorable motifs, but that wasn’t the fault of Beilman or Delfs. The finale, “Fly Forward,” is a five-minute charge of 16th notes for the violinist and rhythmic accents for the orchestra. Though it was well played, I still don’t get Hidgon’s focal point here. Its hyperkinetic activity obscures the brief coda, making the music terminate suddenly.

It was in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which like the Wagner Delfs again conducted without a score, that the sound of the RPO became unmistakably German, with dark, rich strings. This was the first time in 24 years that I’ve felt the Eastman Theater’s floor vibrate with the string basses’ low C at the opening of Brahms’ symphony. Nor had I ever heard the cellos projected with such full tone and consummate ensemble. Their eye contact with one another conveyed their pleasure. This was heavy, weighty, old-world Brahms, not rushed but deliberate, yet the lines were transparent and the woodwinds clear.

Andreas Delfs

An oboe theme in the second movement was supported by a pianissimo bed of seamless lyrical strings. The string basses’ harmonic line was sonorously projected, and the cellos had a grand time matching them. The third movement floated with ease. In the finale, the strings and woodwinds played the big theme absolutely legato with sumptuous lyricism. The eloquent sunrise brass were perfectly balanced right down to their pianissimo transition. In a fugue-like passage, Delfs had the strings articulate with quick-turned strokes, a sound I associate with Czech orchestras.

The coda needed more work — the winds lost ensemble with the strings. Why? The Eastman Theater’s coronavirus regulations are strict: Because the winds couldn’t play with masks, they had to social distance, spread across the stage, pushing all the strings in front of the proscenium over the covered orchestra pit and first two rows of seats. The rapid string-woodwind dialogue was tighter the second night.

At the second concert, the Wagner was even more gloriously performed in one clear arc. The Higdon was less immaculate but had even hotter rhythmic dialogue and lyricism. My main reservations both nights in the Brahms were in the large outer movements, where Delfs’ changes of tempo broke the compelling quality of the composer’s strong structures. Interpretations can be argued, but there is no question that after 11 years, the Rochester Philharmonic is back in stable and skilled artistic hands.

You’d think attendance would be great after 18 months without music and with a new music director, but it was disappointing. Maybe two-thirds of the 2,326 seats were filled. Saturday night drew a slightly larger, mixed, more enthusiastic crowd.