Saturday, January 13, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: Drama, intensity open symphony's year

Drama, intensity open symphony's year
By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, January 13, 2007

Paavo Järvi was back on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra podium to open 2007 with perhaps the most intense program of his six-year tenure.

Each of the three works on Friday's program in Music Hall could have stood alone as a monument to human emotion: Sibelius' Symphony No. 4, Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Overture-fantasy. Together, each built upon the other, until the final, electrifying release of Tchaikovsky's Overture, in a reading that was both lush and darkly turbulent.

Sibelius' Fourth, which opened, is the Finnish composer's boldest symphony, and it may be his bleakest. There are signs of grandeur, but it is mainly interior. It is, Järvi says, like a still lake that hides a great depth underneath.

Despite its moodiness, Järvi's view had a warmth that pervaded its four movements. The first, with beautifully phrased horn calls and shimmering strings, was spacious and powerful; the second, a scherzo, was fleeting and lighthearted. If the slow movement seemed too halting and fragmented, it nevertheless made sense. The musicians performed cleanly through the colorful outbursts of the finale, despite its unsettling quality.

After intermission, Berg's Violin Concerto offered emotion of a different kind. Composed "to the memory of an angel" for Alma Mahler's daughter, Manon Gropius, it is also a requiem for Berg himself. Although atonal, it has great flights of lyricism, and beneath its surface are layers of hidden meaning.

Dutch violinist Isabelle van Keulen was the soloist, whose playing was refined, communicative and at times extraordinarily moving. She displayed enormous control, yet shunned cool intellectualism in favor of warmth and color. The first movement was by turns poignant and earthy, as she displayed both sweetness of tone and a throbbing lower register.

She began the second with a fierce intensity, but never lost her gift for lyrical line. Järvi and the orchestra were close partners, as the violin soared in and out of the texture. The chorale tune, "Es ist Genug" for four clarinets, was wonderfully played, and the violinist's final ascent into the stratosphere had an ethereal effect.

To conclude, Järvi's Tchaikovsky had the musicians on the edges of their seats, performed with such drama that the emotion of the famous love story was almost palpable. Attacks were pointed, the timpani hammered, and the strings in the famous "love theme" sounded incomparable in the Music Hall acoustic.

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