Saturday, September 17, 2005

CONCERT REVIEW: 'Ode' explosively shakes off flab

By Ray Cooklis
Cincinnati Enquirer, September 17, 2005

Possibly no piece of music is more universally recognizable than Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 - specifically the great choral finale on Schiller's "Ode to Joy" that has morphed into everything from a hymn to a pop tune to a commercial jingle to the official European anthem.

We think we know this work. But as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's challenging performance - opening its Music Hall season Friday night under Music Director Paavo Järvi - should remind us, there is much more to know.

In Järvi's hands, this was not the flabby, ceremonial warhorse we often hear. This Ninth had a relentless, headlong urgency, often with explosive accents. Even the Ode, with its hearty folk-like melodies and bright sense of affirmation, had an edge, almost a hunger to it.

So this was a thought-provoking Ninth. Beethoven deeply believed in the moral power of music to redeem humankind. In this 1824 symphony, he proclaimed universal brotherhood - the key line "all men become brothers" was his, not Schiller's - long before the concept was common.

But his demand that listeners confront that brotherhood is as in-your-face and relevant as today's debate on race and class in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There's little safe or comfortable about Beethoven's Ninth. It is a radical work that still has a capacity to shock with the utter originality not only of its musical form - opera, oratorio, concerto and symphony-within-a-symphony - but its message.

This may not have been the tidiest performance the CSO will present this season, but it was honest. That's not to say it was unpolished by any means. Järvi has a fine watercolorist's way with light and tone, and he brought out subtle orchestral colors many listeners may not have heard in this symphony before.

The vocal quartet of soprano Camilla Tilling, mezzo Jane Gilbert, tenor Stanford Olsen and baritone Stephen Powell was first-rate. Beethoven's choral writing often lends itself to near-shouting, but Robert Porco's May Festival Chorus sang with an unforced, sonorous power.

The evening's real "find" was Swedish soprano Tilling, singing Beethoven's aria "Ah! Perfido" with agility and grace in her CSO debut. She knows how to float and spin a note with Mozartean charm, and has remarkable tonal control. Järvi opened the program with Beethoven's "Creatures of Prometheus" ballet overture, in which the violins' fleet precision proved a joy in itself.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. today. Tickets are still available at (513) 381-3300.

Assistant Editorial Page Editor Ray Cooklis is a former Enquirer classical music critic; rcooklis@enquirer.com.

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