Saturday, November 11, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: Perfect pairing: Jarvi and Mahler

Perfect pairing: Jarvi and Mahler
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, November 11, 2006

It's not often that a conductor can command such concentration from an orchestra and have his wishes so perfectly expressed in the music as Paavo Jarvi did Friday night at Music Hall.

The Cincinnati Symphony music director has what it takes to make this orchestra not only the best it can be, but even better, by taking them beyond mere excellence into truly inspired music-making.

So it was with Mahler's Ninth Symphony. As the violas sounded the last four notes of the Adagio, communication with Jarvi was total. These notes, marked "extremely slow" and "pianississimo," seemed to flow directly from his hands into their instruments. Each note seemed to have a special meaning, and Jarvi lingered over them, the next-to-last given an achingly gentle touch as it yielded to the valedictory chord.

The concert was a particularly thoughtful one, since both works on the program deal with death. But Mahler's Ninth and Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension" have completely different points of view. Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic and his 1933 "L'Ascension" brooks no doubts as to what lies beyond the grave. Mahler, on the other hand, was haunted by the specter of death and in fact, died of a heart ailment at 51 just after completing this symphony. Mahler's Ninth, said Jarvi in videotaped remarks before the concert, "was a very personal, Jewish, angst-ridden journey."

It begins almost nonchalantly with a few fragmentary thoughts in horn, harp and strings, before being gripped by turmoil. Rushes of hope alternate with sheer terror and it works into a funeral march and nauseous heavings of sound that finally die away as if exhausted. Jarvi filled the second movement, an Austrian landler, with falling-down drunk enthusiasm, lurching from side to side at one point, and giving the saucy little ending a flip of his hand.

The Rondo-Burleske was more sound and fury, as Mahler struggles against the shadow of death (he knew he was dying when he wrote the Symphony). The E-flat clarinet (Jonathan Gunn) whistled in the dark and a pitiful cry in the trumpet interrupted the clamor. Still, it ended with a great big kick in the pants, signaled by a huge sideways swipe of Jarvi's baton.

The Adagio, a shining moment for the strings, has some amorous as well as tender moments and Jarvi led it with incredible intensity.

"L'Ascension," subtitled "Four Symphonic Meditations," is inspired by biblical texts dealing with the afterlife. The first, "Majesty of Christ Asking Glory from His Father" is a soaring brass chorale (kudos to Doug Lindsay and the entire trumpet section). The second, "Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul Desiring Heaven," features the woodwinds in exotic, chant-like music of great timbral beauty.

"Hallelujah on the Trumpet, Hallelujah on the Cymbal" begins with a trumpet fanfare and introduces tambourine, bass drum and cymbals as fitting symbols of the journey to heaven.

"Christ's Prayer Rising to His Father" conveys the ultimate majesty, Christ's own ascension. This is portrayed in slow-moving string passages that climb higher and higher until the final unresolved-sounding chord.

Each movement was accompanied by colored lighting, blue, mauve, peach and finally kettledrum copper. Messiaen experienced synesthesia, i.e. he associated particular chords and pitches with particular colors.

Repeat is 8 tonight at Music Hall.

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