Saturday, January 13, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO program is food for thought

CSO program is food for thought
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post, January 13, 2007

Lighten up, you might say.

Well, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's first concert of the new year Friday night at Music Hall was more mind-blowing and midwinter than merry, with lots of dark tone colors and food for thought.

Music director Paavo Jarvi has a flair for programming. Returning after two months guest conducting in Europe, he offered his listeners a program whose sum equaled more than its parts, with a performance that went over the top, too.

Sibelius' Symphony No. 4, Berg's Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" might seem randomly chosen. On closer inspection, however, their inter-relationships are extraordinary. Sibelius' Fourth (1911), which was written on the cusp of the "modern" age, musically speaking, marked the farthest point he would go toward the harmonic revolution of the 20th-century, with lots of harmonic ambiguity and virtually no "melody," as such.

On top of that, it's a very serious, not to say gloomy, work, having been written during a dark period in Sibelius' life (he expected to die at any time, having just had surgery for throat cancer).

Berg's Concerto, radiantly performed by Dutch violinist Isabelle van Keulen, bends in the opposite direction. The Austrian composer, a chief exponent of the so-called "12-tone," freely "dissonant" system that shattered 300 years of key-centered harmony, was a master at making his music sound tonal. Berg's concerto, "To the Memory of An Angel," also dwells on death, having been dedicated to Manon Gropius, a friend's daughter, who died of polio at 18. His last completed work, it became, in fact, Berg's own requiem and contains cryptic references to the women he loved, including an illegitimate daughter whom he came to identify with Manon.

Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," while securely situated among the all-time favorite classical works, is of course, based on a great tale of love and death. As such, it fit the death-related theme of the concert perfectly.

Sibelius' Fourth is the least popular of his symphonies and regularly challenges audiences. It did Friday, though not for lack of a splendid performance. The grave Adagio set the tone, with its chocolaty strings and gleaming, incisive brass. Jarvi gave emphasis to the tripping woodwinds in the scherzo, a lighter moment among the persistent tritones and snarly horns.

The symphony gave birth to a gorgeous, impassioned theme in the Largo, but only after five tortuous tries. The glints of glockenspiel in the finale were a bit of light in the darkness along with the "heroic" flourishes in winds and brass. The work ends mezzo-forte on a repeated major chord, as if Sibelius had run out of steam. The audience "got it," however, and applauded promptly.

Van Keulen brought Manon Gropius vividly to life in the concerto. The two movements are programmatic, the first a reminiscence of her beauty and character, the second a portrayal of her illness and death. Van Keulen matched her tone and expression to each episode, flighty and cheerful in the first, plucky and aggressive in the second, serenely resigned at the end, where Berg quotes a Bach chorale. The enigmatic folk song woven into both movements (hardly Bachian with its risque text) had a mysterious feel, and van Keulen tied it all up in a performance as narrative as it was nimble. Kudos to visiting tubist Christopher Olka for some wonderful solos.

Jarvi made sheer drama out of the Tchaikovsky. I have rarely heard a performance so full of contrast, painfully slow, almost morose at the beginning, an oasis of peace in the tender love scene. The strife of the Montagues and Capulets was savagely drawn, making the threnody at the end that much more effective.

Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall.
Mary ellyn hutton's website is Music in Cincinnati.

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