Thursday, September 15, 2005

CSO opening new season this weekend

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, September 14, 2005

An orchestra, said Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi, is "not a football team."

"It's not about winning or losing. It's about having something very fragile that needs to be nurtured and protected, not turned into a mass event."

Järvi, who is back in Cincinnati to lead the opening concerts of the CSO's 111th season, nevertheless knows how to play the game.

"For me, one of the most difficult things to find is the balance between art and show business.

"I am not one of those conductors who stands completely on one side and thinks that show business has no place onstage or somebody who always worries about being popular. Quite the opposite."

This week's opening night concert, an all-Beethoven program including the Ninth Symphony ("Ode to Joy"), is a little bit of both. One of the world's best known classical works, it is also one of its greatest masterpieces.

Concerts are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall and there'll be plenty of celebration to go with it. Joining Järvi and the CSO are soprano Camilla Tilling, mezzo-soprano Jane Gilbert, tenor Stanford Olsen, bass Stephen Powell and the May Festival Chorus.

The upcoming CSO season is a finely calibrated mix of traditional and less familiar works. There is an all-Rachmaninoff program, including the Second Symphony and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (to be recorded by Telarc), as well as Danish composer Carl Nielsen's quirky, "post-modern" Symphony No. 6.

CSO audiences will hear Beethoven's Symphonies No. 1 and 7, Grieg's Incidental Music to Peer Gynt, Elgar's "Enigma" Variations (to be recorded by Telarc with works by Benjamin Britten), Mahler's First and Second Symphonies, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and the Third Symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann, all standard orchestral fare.

Making rare appearances will be Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler symphony (from his opera about Matthias Grunewald, painter of the famous Isenheim altarpiece).

More adventurous still are Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür's Insula deserta, George Antheil's Symphony No. 4 and works by Toru Takemitsu, Astor Piazzolla, Thomas Ades, Michael Hersch and Aaron Jay Kernis.

"To me," said Järvi, who has relationships with three orchestras in addition to the CSO - the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Frankfurt Radio Symphony and Estonian National Orchestra - "you can't give up the fight to make music relevant as an art form. It IS an art form, not a form of entertainment."

Järvi, 42, who is entering his fifth season as CSO music director, is extremely gratified not only by the excellence of the orchestra, but also by its attitude.

"I've been to so many orchestras where they say, 'Oh, why do we have to play this kind of stuff? It's not Brahms, it's not Beethoven.' We're doing that as well, but it is nice to see this incredibly open attitude towards new things. It puts everybody under a lot of pressure because these things need to be learned, but it is also something that keeps you alive."

Järvi wages the battle of the box office constantly, he said.

"I spend my life talking about will it sell or not. I try to educate the people around me and say, 'Look, I know how difficult it is to sell a Bruckner project, for example, but that doesn't mean we're not going to do it. We have to do it and find ways to bring people in. Not to do it would be giving up.' "

Music Hall is a reality of literally larger proportions, he said.

"It's difficult, because I love the hall. When you look at it from the stage, you think what a magnificent hall. It's just the size is too big. One of the things that I find most detrimental to us is constantly living with the perception that somehow the quality of the orchestra is not good enough to fill the hall.

"That is completely misleading, because it is not the quality of the orchestra, or even the support in the community. It is just that the proportions are wrong. In the long term, this will kill the orchestra because we live in a society of supply and demand, and right now there is a perception of lack of demand."

Average attendance at CSO concerts last season was 1,707 (a drop of 12 percent from the year before, attributed largely to a 25 percent increase in ticket prices). With a capacity of 3,516, Music Hall is largest concert hall in the U.S. By contrast New York's Carnegie Hall seats 2,804, Boston's Symphony Hall 2,625, Cleveland's Severance Hall 2,100, Orchestra Hall in Chicago 2,310 and Los Angeles' new Disney Concert Hall 2,265.

Plans to re-configure Music Hall - to move the stage forward and/or remove some of the seats - are ongoing, Järvi said, though for financial reasons they have been put on the "back burner" for the moment.

"You have to choose your battles, because you have to put enough energy into every one. For me, the overall financial health of the orchestra is obviously more important at this point than rebuilding the hall."

The CSO will announce a capital campaign later this season to help replenish its endowment, which fell during the downturn of the stock market from over $90 million to about $65 million today.

Nothing will be done to Music Hall without careful consideration, Järvi emphasized. "Nobody would ever think of ruining or destroying or drilling anything unless everything is pre-tested. In New York's Avery Fisher Hall, they do a whole series of concerts ("Mostly Mozart" in the summer) where they have built the stage in the middle of the hall, and they have had incredible success."

Järvi said he could not pick favorites among this season's CSO programs (he will lead 14 of the 24 concerts).

"I look forward to every week because they (the CSO musicians) are so able and so good. I feel, having being together now for a while, that we are zeroing in in a very, very personal way. I think this is the key really - to find a certain personal identification."

Guest artists during the season include clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Garrick Ohlsson, Barry Douglas and Stewart Goodyear, violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Akiko Suwanai and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff.

Guest conducting will be rising star Xian Zhang in her CSO debut, William Eddins, Sir Roger Norrington and Jaime Laredo. Pops conductor Erich Kunzel will lead an all-Brahms program in honor of his 40th anniversary with the CSO and music director emeritus Jesus Lopez-Cobos will conduct Bruckner.

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