Just got back from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's first performance with Arild Remmereit in his new role as Music Director (apparently he has guest conducted on 3 previous occasions, but I do not believe I saw any of them). He is from Norway, but spent much of his life in Vienna, Austria.
I'm always willing to give a guy a try, and like to start with an open mind, but when he mentioned that all the programs he would be doing this season would have a FEMALE composer I was not pleased. Not that I have anything against female composers (honestly, I didn't really know there were any in the classical field, but they have certainly done fine in pop) but I find the idea of choosing music on the BASE of the composer being female no less loathsome than choosing on the base of the composer being Aryan. In Arild's defense (and please do not think I am being overly familiar by using his first name, the program calls it "Arild's Inaugural"), from the very beginning of Amy Beach's Symphony No. 2 in E minor, "Gaelic", Op. 32 I was impressed.
This was music I had never heard before, but it was fascinating, stirring in a mildly disturbing way. There was nothing weird about it, she did not seem to feel she had to be different than the men, just very good. Symphonies are not my favorite form of music, I think my attention span is just a bit too short for works of that length, but this one did not drag at all, and it often enchanted. The conductor mentioned before beginning the symphony that this was not part of the standard repertoire and our applause might be what makes that change....or not. I quote from memory: "So if you do not like this piece, be sure to boo loudly!"
I don't think I've ever been encouraged to boo at a classical concert before, especially not by the conductor, but his efforts seem to fall on deaf ears: at the end all he got was loud applause and a standing ovation with not a single "boo" to be heard in the crowd.
After the intermission we got four shorter pieces on the program: two by Norwegian composers (Halvorsen and Svendsen - both unfamiliar to me but I was glad to get to know them...the first was a quirky march that almost made you want to find some battle to march into, the second a romance featuring the concertmaster as soloist) and two by Strauss (and unfamiliar waltz and a familiar polka). While no single song left you quite as impressed as the symphony that started it, each one was really unpretentious and enjoyable...you regretted having to sit instead of being on your feet and moving with the music. I think that this is actually more in spirit of the times of the compositions, these guys were the rock stars of their centuries, and people listened to them to party.
At the end the applause was a bit awkward...we were kind of expecting to do the applause (not standing ovation this time, but only because it feels a bit odd to do a standing-o for a three minute polka no matter how damn good it is) with the standard two calls back for additional bows and pointing out the star performers in the orchestra, but he didn't let us....each time he jogged back from leaving the stage he started another piece without giving us time to stop clapping, and they were all fun, slightly silly pieces (one involving the whole orchestra chanting "tick-tock" repeatedly throughout an otherwise quiet part of the piece). One was concerned that unless the audience learned just the right applause techniques he would never let us leave...and one wasn't entirely sure that would be a bad thing.
He capped these pieces (I think there were four in all, including this last) with the Radetzky March, with the audience clapping the beat, and him turning around and conducting the audience to do quiet little claps for the quieter section and thunderous claps for the fortissimo. This guy is a master.
One thing puzzled me, and he alluded to it. Beach's Symphony No. 2 was the first symphony composed by an American woman. Why did she start with No. 2? My current working hypothesis is that she wrote a Symphony No. 1 while she was on steroids, and this one was disqualified by the Olympic committee on that ground...but I don't think the Olympic committee existed yet, and if it did probably would not have extended it's influence over classical music.....inquiring minds want to know!