Concert review: Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ is thrilling

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra drew a crowd for its Thursday night concert, featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — possibly the best known symphony out there. It’s ubiquitous throughout popular culture, found in movies, television, commercials. It was even remixed in the ’70s into a disco song, and has been sampled by pop stars over the last decade.

Randomly stop someone on the street and there’s a high chance they’ll be able to hum the opening bars of the first movement.

Due to the work’s popular draw, it became a buffer on the program, assuring that more exploratory, modern works could also be performed without risking audience numbers.

With works by Messiaen and Prokofiev, both 20th-century masters, on the concert’s first half, and Beethoven’s monumental and everlasting Fifth Symphony on the second, the program is easily the most well-rounded and interesting of the season.

Still, guest conductor Julian Kuerti, who just finished his post as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and made his RPO debut Thursday, knew that the Messiaen’s disparate sounds might need more context to be enjoyed by all listeners. Before the orchestra even tuned, he walked out on stage with a microphone to introduce Messiaen’s Les Offrandes Oubliées, explaining Messiaen’s Catholic influences and the work’s three-section construction.

The effort seemed to keep the audience on board, along with the RPO’s deft performance. The work is laden with lamenting and delicate melodies and includes a violent middle section, with instruments screaming and running amok. The RPO mastered the work’s large range. Kuerti kept tight control, demonstrating rhythmic precision and clear movements, and conveyed its heavy emotions aptly.

It was a double debut night: Along with Kuerti, guest violinist Karen Gomyo, a recent recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, debuted with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Gomyo is a nimble, punchy player with clear sound production, and she rode Prokofiev’s rhythmic roller coaster with ease. But the orchestra and soloist had difficulty locking in, especially in the work’s third movement rondo, and Kuerti lost some of the bold confidence he displayed earlier in his conducting.

The second movement, however, came across effortlessly on all ends, Gomyo performing the lyrical lines tastefully and the orchestra add-ing to its lightness and flow.

Following intermission, Kuerti took the podium for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony without a score and launched into its famous opening with fiery intent. With Kuerti, the RPO illuminated the work’s lesser known middle movements with skillful, engaged performing and emerged energized into its final, regal movement. Knowing the work marks the trombones and piccolo’s historic orchestral debut, it never loses its thrill, no matter how often it’s performed.

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