Saturday, September 16, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: Despite cavernous hall, opening night a success

Mary Ellyn Hutton of the Cincinnati Post offers a different view of opening night in her review today. (And visit her newly redesigned website, Music in Cincinnati for new features and articles written for other publications.)
Despite cavernous hall, opening night a success
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, September 16, 2006

Those "Bravo Paavo" billboards that went up all over town when Paavo Jarvi become Cincinnati Symphony music director in 2001 did not speak.

Over the course of the next five years the CSO audience learned that Jarvi in the flesh did not speak either - at least not at concerts (he is quite loquacious in other settings).

Addressing the audience at concerts breaks his concentration, he says, which is perfectly understandable and his decision to make as a performing artist.

Many of today's conductors do speak to their audiences, however. It breaks the wall of separation between them, as well as providing insights into the music. The CSO unveiled a compromise solution at its all-Brahms season-opener Friday night at Music Hall. Before the concert began they were shown a video of Jarvi discussing the music to be performed, projected onto screens mounted on either side of the stage.

Nice try, but it isn't going to help much. The screens are quite small (perhaps 3 x 5 feet) and the images are so far from most listeners that there isn't much to be gained except the sound of Jarvi's voice - a delightful experience in itself, which can be had on WGUC-FM's "Paavo Perspectives" and at his CD signings, etc. Judging from audience response, a respectful, but short round of applause, they didn't get much out of it.

The only way to break down the distance of the CSO Music Hall experience is to attack the real problem: Music Hall itself. The CSO must downsize it or get out. Otherwise, it will see week after week of half-full houses, as it did Friday night.

All-Brahms is a grand way to start a season and the concert itself was quite satisfying. Guest artist in the Brahms Violin Concerto was Gil Shaham. Jarvi opened with the Academic Festival Overture and closed with Brahms' First Symphony.

Shaham cultivated intimacy in his performance, favoring a sweet, lilting tone, often speaking in a very soft dynamic. This, plus his habit of turning away from the audience (listeners on the left side of the hall saw only his back at times) tended to blunt his intentions, but there was no denying the consummate skill of his playing. Though awarded a standing ovation and called back for several bows, there was no encore.

Brahms First Symphony proved an excellent opportunity to introduce two of the CSO's newest members, principal French hornist Elizabeth Freimuth and principal timpanist Patrick Schleker. Schleker laid into the tolling eighth notes that open the symphony with grandeur and presence, and he was handsomely showcased throughout in the symphony's many "timpani" moments. As principal hornist, Freimuth soared in one of the symphony great moments, the majestic horn solo in the introduction to the finale.

The symphony also provided a demonstration of Jarvi's formidable non-verbal skills. He is one of today's most communicative conductors and he was in particularly good form Friday, showing the CSO players what he wanted through swoops, shivers, waving motions and occasional leaps on the podium.

(Video projections of the conductor as the players see him - as was tried and regrettably discarded during former music director Jesus Lopez-Cobos' tenure - may be due for a Jarvi inning.)

The CSO warmed to their task over the course of the evening, turning in an energetic but fairly routine Academic Festival and a sympathetic collaboration with Shaham, despite some too-heavy moments. Acting principal oboist Lon Bussell (former principal oboist Liang Wang has been named principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic) turned in a radiant solo in the concerto's slow movement.

The moment it all came together was the finale of the symphony. Jarvi turned it into a drama of the first order, taking the opening pizzicato at glacial speed from the faintest sound to a rapid, resounding "plunk," followed by a sharp timpani rattle. The complex rhythms and huge build-up during the development section left the orchestra sounding exhausted (figuratively speaking) and the galloping figures of the coda led into a magnificent final chorale.

Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall.

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