Saturday, September 16, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: A CSO twist on traditional Brahms

Here's Janelle Gelfand's review of the Cincinnati Symphony's opening night:
"Music, just like a human being, is unpredictable," said conductor Paavo Järvi in pre-recorded "First Notes" projected on plasma screens flanking Music Hall's stage Friday night.

Like the video, Järvi opened the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 112th season with all-Brahms performances that were indeed not in the traditional vein. There was something urgent, individual and almost experimental about his reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 that concluded the evening. And in the opening Academic Festival Overture, he turned pomp on its head, with a lighthearted look at Brahms' music that, after all, quotes from college drinking songs.

If one were to single out the evening's truly majestic interpretation, it was Gil Shaham's performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D. Shaham, a regular visitor to the Cincinnati Symphony, is a young violinist with an old-school sound, whose playing is full of personality, and who can toss off the most demonic feats with a smile.

His view was unabashedly romantic, sliding into notes and using a big vibrato to produce a gorgeous, glossy sound on his 1699 Stradivarius. From the first note, the violinist projected an ease and a sweetness of tone that was mesmerizing.

The cadenza, by Joseph Joachim, was expansive, punctuated by breathtaking bits of dazzle. He projected a beautiful line in the slow movement, and turned gypsy violinist in the finale, playing with flair and injecting its inner themes with wit and sparkle.

Järvi and the orchestra were in perfect communion.

Järvi's reading of Brahms' First was also in a romantic vein - with such dramatic contrasts of mood, the effect was a bit like getting a "deconstructed" meal at your favorite restaurant. You either like it or not.

He elicited a dark, full-bodied sound from the orchestra, pressing ahead with immense intensity, and then pulling back for moments of glowing lyricism. There was much to admire in the playing.
But in Brahms, too much freedom can come at the expense of the classical structure. It didn't work in the slow movement, where the beauty lies in its simplicity.

Still, the musicians played wonderfully, with clean attack, velvety sound in the strings, and expression in the orchestral solos (kudos to the new principal timpanist, Patrick Schleker, 25). The finale, with its great brass chorale, was electrifying, and the strings played its familiar theme with bracing color.

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