ROCHESTER — Call it “A Concert for Lydia,” the daughter of Andreas Delfs, music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). She died in 2020 at age 23 after a long illness. The family, which maintains an almost sacred silence about the nature of the illness, established the Lydia Delfs Foundation, which commissioned a work from Delfs’ longtime friend, composer Roberto Sierra (Delfs asked specifically for a violin concerto). They first met as students in Hamburg in 1978 and grew even closer when both established residences near Ithaca, N.Y., where Delfs, 62, has close relatives and Sierra, 68, was a professor at Cornell University for 30 years (he retired in January to devote himself to composing).
Consider the world premiere of Sierra’s Violin Concerto (a la memoria de una niña valiente [a brave girl]) (2021) as the fulcrum for the RPO’s concerts May 5 and 7 in Rochester and May 8 at Cornell. As Sierra wrote in his program notes, “The driving impulse for this concerto was the news of the premature departure of Lulu (Lydia) Delfs, a beloved person whom I knew since she was a very young girl. Although the tragic nature of the initial chord reflects my grief, I did not want to write a work that in any way becomes biographical. The only part of the piece that reflects the sweet nature of the child I knew is the second movement, where the Lydian scale is extensively used.” He added, “The harmonic sound is almost tonal but not really tonal, almost at the margin of things.” The structure is shaped by a few recurring devices that get amorphized as they go along. He calls it “the same materials changed — I look into a pool of sounds, not styles.”
As the opening tragic chord faded, soloist Juliana Athayde, concertmaster of the RPO since 2005, emerged with a held note more than two octaves above middle C. She was playing her newly acquired Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin (1845), whose sweet tone projected with ease into the 2,260-seat Eastman Theatre. The movement’s moody angst, subtly underlined by a pulsing timpani, alternates with a calming mid-range second theme. Three elements made the movement listener-friendly: rhythmic clarity, orchestration that never obscures the soloist, and Athayde’s and Delfs’ consummate grasp of the concerto. Interpretation was up to the soloist in several violin cadenzas, marked libremente (some of her pauses between phrases seemed too long). At the end of the movement, several people applauded.
The slow second movement (“Expressivo”), lyrical in three-quarter time, with solo horn and woodwinds, is filled with melismatic violin flourishes, including extensive harmonics that were exquisitely played, and an affecting underlying harp. A brief cadenza and an echo of the concerto’s opening high pitch briefly reflect the movement’s midrange calm. Delfs said, “The textures are so beautiful, the structure so clear. It will be difficult for me to conduct for emotional reasons, not technical ones.”
The first two movements are easier to latch on to rhythmically and motivically. The last two, a Scherzo and Toccata, are more challenging. The Scherzo is a “points of light” or “sparkling sequins” movement, with cross-rhythms, twos alternating with threes, and fast-moving three-quarter measures. Athayde said that it took a lot of “nitty-gritty fingering” so that it would work, adding, after the second rehearsal, “Today I finally became fluent in Roberto!”
The closing Toccata continues the Scherzo’s tempo as it shifts regularly between 6/8 and 4/4, with bongos and timpani playing dotted-eighth/sixteenth/eighth rhythms. Sierra is Puerto Rican, but I found the Latin dance element rather muted — the work is too classically formal for that. It reminds Delfs of Mahler, and “how the world and life continue in futility. It’s a hamster movement, intriguing elements kinetically moving, but always returning to where it began. Juliana has her work cut out in the Toccata.” A reflective cadenza has pizzicatos, strumming, and more harmonics before charging into a Khachaturian-like virtuosic coda, replete with echoes of the work’s initial crashing chord. Athayde said that the last two movements test one’s stamina: “After 21 pages, you get to 22 and 23, and it’s time to do the 50-meter sprint.”
The May 7 performance (about 25 minutes) was on fire. Athayde’s presence and tone were authoritative; there wasn’t a single missed note or shady intonation. Delfs and the RPO also played as if possessed. Accents, ensemble, and emotional thrust simply consumed me. Violinist, conductor, and orchestra were one.
Not just the concerto but the whole evening was “A Concert for Lydia.” Delfs constructed it cleverly, opening with Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusine Overture, about the ill-fated love of a mermaid for a knight in shining armor. Delfs’ transparent rhythms revealed more levels than one ordinarily suspects. The RPO was especially expressive, articulate, transparent, and liquid as Delfs built the aquatic drama with punchy accents, before simmering down to a faded minor-key ending.
After intermission, “Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony speaks for itself,” Delfs said. It was a deeply troubled reading, seemingly tragic for Delfs — a tribute to his daughter emphasized by his repeat of the exposition. The melancholy longing of the second theme (“You are my song of love,” as a pop tune once put it) almost made me weep. The second movement: Talk about wistfulness and poignant, bittersweet memories! It was hauntingly played, ripe with atmosphere. Delfs made the development section feel like an outcry, a reflection on the loss of a dear one. Forgive the cliché: It seemed like the first time I’d ever really heard the work.
As Delfs said, “But we can’t end a concert with melancholy.” He surprised us by segueing without a break from the first violins holding the E-major ending of the Schubert to Johann Strauss II’s opening violins, shimmering in the dominant (E-major) as the French horns began the tonic (A major) melody, of On the Beautiful Blue Danube, a favorite waltz of daughter Lydia. The Thursday performance was a bit pedestrian, but Saturday night’s was on fire with yelping upturned phrases and accents played with quick, light strokes, reminding me of the Czech Philharmonic playing Dvořák. The Saturday crowd demanded a third curtain call.
As the RPO nears the end of music director Delf’s first season, Athayde reflected that, after years of Delfs’ visits as guest conductor, his relationship with the orchestra has quickly come to fruition. She said, “He doesn’t tell us how to play (e.g., louder, softer); he conveys a concept.” He has also renewed the RPO’s signature German sound from the days of Leinsdorf, Zinman (whom Delfs considers European in style), and Semkow. As Athayde said, “Once the signature is there, we can adapt to other nationalities.” Not even a brief midwinter resurgence of Covid that caused a few concerts to be rescheduled has prevented audiences from steadily growing once again, as word gets out that the Rochester Philharmonic is back in sure, imaginative hands.