Saturday, April 28, 2007

Californians 'bowled over' by week-long CSO tour

April 26, 2007

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post music writer

"Cincinnati truly has it all," reads a headline in the April 23 Orange County Register.

The Reds? Bengals? Skyline Chili?

Nope. The reference this time was to Cincinnati's 112-year-old symphony orchestra, just back from a week-long tour of Southern California.

"Under its music director Paavo Järvi, this remarkable orchestra gave one of the most spellbinding concerts here in recent memory," wrote Orange County Register music critic Timothy Mangan, who pronounced himself "completely bowled over" by the CSO's performance Friday night in Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Reviewing the same concert - which included Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 ("Inextinguishable"), Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür's "Zeitraum" and Brahms' Violin Concerto with guest artist Leonidas Kavakos - Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed called the Nielsen "riveting" and "an example of power perfectly directed."

"Segerstrom is a hall that has already hosted great orchestras. But neither the New York Philharmonic barreling through Beethoven's 'Eroica,' nor even the irrepressible Kirov playing Shostakovich had quite the visceral excitement of Cincinnati's 'Inextinguishable.' "

Sacramento Bee critic Edward Ortiz, commenting on the Nielsen/Tüür/Brahms program Saturday night in the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis, called the CSO "a must-see orchestra" with "an expansive and epic sound capable of sonic thunder and whisper."

Ortiz saluted Järvi's "adventurous programming" and "flair for 20th-century music," writing, "perhaps the greatest joy of seeing the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is the surety that you will get something you've never heard before."

Critics were struck by Järvi's close working relationship with the players:

Wrote Mangan: "Few (orchestras) can match the sheer verve and deep musicality of the Cincinnatians. The orchestra and its 44-year-old conductor seem to have formed an uncommon bond."

One of the goals of the tour, said Järvi, was to "show people that what we have on our recordings is true."

Weighing in on that, Swed added:

"Under him (Järvi), the orchestra has produced a series of recordings for Telarc - some, sumptuously recorded in Super Audio CD, that sound almost too good to be believed. In the acoustically adjustable Segerstrom, where the sound chambers were in a mostly closed position to give the hall less resonance, the evidence gave no lie to the CDs." (Check out the full reviews at www.latimes.com, www.ocregister.com and www.sacbee.com.)

Järvi and the CSO performed in five cities: Palm Desert, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Costa Mesa and Davis. Alternating with the Nielsen on tour programs was Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique."

San Diego's Copley Hall, a restored movie palace seating 2,252, was a particularly booming venue. The offstage bell strokes in the finale of the Berlioz were not always perfectly synchronized with the orchestra, but principal clarinetist Richard Hawley's solo just before the fatal blow in "March to the Scaffold" has never sounded so gulp-in-the-throat-ish.

Sparkling, Cesar Pelli-designed Segerstrom Hall (2,000 seats) was a favorite of many of the players, but from an audience perspective, 1,801-seat Mondavi Center in Davis had greater balance and quality of sound. Timpanist Richard Jensen's walk-on from the audience to the stage in the Nielsen finale caused one listener to raise her arm as if trying to stop him.

Kavakos' Brahms stirred controversy on the tour, with observations ranging from "bloodless" (San Diego Union-Tribune) to "electrifying" (Sacramento Bee). These ears have never heard such an arresting performance, combining classical polish, integrity and heart with a buoyant, paprika-laced finale (Kavakos' father was a folk fiddler).

Audiences in every city were enthusiastic, with standing ovations and encores the norm.

Still, it remains an uphill battle for the CSO, which, with several other major American orchestras, must compete with the "Big Five" image that clings like moss to the orchestras of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. (The term was born in the 1950s and remains a potent marketing tool.)

CSO reviews tend to include comments like "even if the Cincinnati Symphony isn't in the top artistic echelon of U.S. orchestras...." (San Diego Union-Tribune, April 21).

Järvi sees progress, however - even an advantage in terms of player attitudes.

"The orchestra is gaining ground in the way it's being perceived in the musical world. There's a kind of underdog mentality that I like. It mobilizes people to do more than they ordinarily would."

In addition to heightened visibility, the great benefit of touring, said Järvi, is "the orchestra becomes better. They improve and become closer."

Orchestra rankings are "a matter of perception," said Doug Sheldon, senior vice president of Columbia Arts Management in New York, organizer of the tour. "The Big Five don't always play equally well now. There are orchestras that are pushing their standards up, particularly San Francisco and Cincinnati. Frankly, I don't hear much talk abut the Big Five anymore."

The CSO traveled by bus between cities, with a flight from San Diego to Sacramento. Some people drove rental cars, including California natives Hawley, principal bassist Owen Lee, and contra-bassoonist Jennifer Monroe and her husband, Carlton, who had their 7-month-old twins, Jack and Catherine, in tow. Principal hornist Elizabeth Freimuth got a surprise when she opened her Palm Desert hotel room door and found her husband there. (Ben Freimuth is bass clarinetist with the San Francisco Symphony.)

Second violinist and assistant personnel manager Scott Mozlin played poker when not attending to luggage, and first violinist Gerald Itzkoff and bassists Matthew Zory and Boris Astafiev did a photo shoot at Joshua Tree National Monument on their free day in Santa Barbara. Public relations director Carrie Krysanick hopped into a convertible with visiting CSO artistic planning manager Julie Eugenio for a quick ride to La Jolla during their San Diego stop.

A dinner was held in Costa Mesa for former CSO cellist Laura McLellan, who subbed with the CSO on the tour. McLellan, who took early retirement in 2005 and now lives in Santa Rosa, recently endowed cellist Susan Marshall-Petersen's chair (the two joined the CSO on the same day in June, 1978). Another visitor was former principal second violinist and personnel manager Rosemary Waller, also of Santa Rosa, who exchanged hugs with her former colleagues backstage in Davis.

Järvi's conducting teacher at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, Otto-Werner Mueller, greeted his former student at the post-concert CD signing in San Diego, where San Diego Symphony music director Jahja Ling also paid a call.

Other visitors included CSO board of overseers' member James Monroe and his wife, Ann, in Palm Desert, longtime CSO subscriber Peggy Kite in San Diego and CSO board chairman Rick Reynolds, board member Duck Wadsworth, board of overseers' member Norma Petersen and former Cincinnatian Herb Bloch and his wife in Costa Mesa.

The tour, budgeted at $400,000, was funded by presenters' fees and a Procter & Gamble endowment for touring.

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