Tuesday, April 24, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO on tour: scary rides, standing ovations



April 20, 2007



By Mary Ellyn Hutton, Cincinnati Post music writer


Photo by Mary Ellen Hutton
Paavo Järvi signed programs and CDs after leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in concert in Santa Barbara.

Three time zones, four temperate zones.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by music director Paavo Järvi arrived in Palm Desert, Calif., Sunday afternoon for a weeklong tour of the Golden State.
The early contingent, including CSO principal librarian Mary Judge and public relations director Carrie Krysanick, disembarked in San Diego ahead of the main body of travelers and boarded a bus for the 120-mile drive to Palm Desert, first stop on the five-city tour.
"If you go the route we went, through the San Bernardino Mountains, you go up four temperate zones," said driver John Martin of Nada Bus Company. "We went all the way from desert to alpine, 4,000 to 4,500 feet. When we got to the stop, there were trees and it started to snow."
"I thought it was stunningly beautiful, but for me it was a white-knuckle drive," Judge said. "There were only two lanes. There were no railings and no pull-off lane on either side. You could see straight down from my window."
"She was hanging onto the hand rest like she was hanging onto a roller coaster," Martin said. "It was pretty funny."
All of the streets in Palm Desert (near Palm Springs) say Hollywood. Bing Crosby's Restaurant and Piano Lounge stood directly across from one of the two CSO hotels and every intersection has a glittering name: Ginger Rogers Road, Frank Sinatra Drive (which intersects Bob Hope Drive). The box office outside the concert hall, McCallum Theatre on Fred Waring Drive, is the Johnny Mercer Box Office.
The first concert on Monday - in 1,127-seat McCallum Theatre - was sold out months in advance. The evening was cool, definitely jacket weather (though temperatures during the days have been seasonally sunny and bright, reaching into the mid-60s). Audience members included singer and Cincinnati Pops favorite Toni Tennille. Violinist/tour guest artist Leonidas Kavakos gave a magisterial performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto (CSO audiences heard him in the same work at Music Hall in September 2005) and so impressed Tennille that she asked to be put in touch with his management.
The second half comprised Berlioz' "Symphonie fantastique," whose offstage effects - oboe and English horn in the third movement, church bells in the finale - were harder to achieve in the small hall. Oboist Lon Bussell performed from the rear of the balcony, but even there Järvi asked him to play more softly to try to create a long distance effect (no problem in ample Music Hall). The energy and drama of the performance were such that that the audience rose instantly to their feet in a sustained ovation. Järvi threw them an impish sidewise glance as he began the encore, a schmaltzy rendition of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 2.
"It was a truly special concert," said Doug Sheldon, senior vice president of Columbia Arts Management in New York City, organizer of the tour. "The orchestra played on a truly high level, but on a musical level, it was pretty extraordinary. Together with Paavo, they did some special things."
The 122-mile drive to Santa Barbara took the orchestra through orchards and farmland, where workers could be seen bending over emerging crops. The smell of the sea woke some of the California natives as the buses drew near the coastal city, where small craft dot the coastline and flowers bloom everywhere. Someone spotted a giraffe on a hillside (denizen of the Santa Barbara Zoo).
The concert Tuesday took place in Arlington Theater, another smallish hall (2,010 seats) with a hacienda look, the interior having decorative balconies on either side with vines and flower pots and a ceiling speckled with stars.
The concert was even more charged than the first, with Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony (the "Inextinguishable") performed in place of the Brahms Concerto. There was no room onstage for timpanist Richard Jensen to make his dramatic entrance from the aisle during the final movement of the Nielsen, as he did on CSO concerts earlier this month. He and principal timpanist Patrick Schleker carried on their fierce duel side by side in the percussion section instead, with blows as sharp as gunfire.
Bussell performed his distant solo from the balcony again, but the bells had to be housed onstage where they made a bit too much of a din. The surefire work thrilled the crowd nonetheless, with many scooping up the CSO's Berlioz CDs afterwards and asking Järvi to sign them.
Wednesday was a free day for the orchestra. Players and staff ranged over the city, which sparkled in the sunlight and felt a hefty breeze (shutting off some cell phones late in the day). Violists Denisse Rodriguez-Rivera and Mark Cleghorn headed for the historic Santa Barbara Mission, French hornist Tom Sherwood and bassist Wayne Anderson went hiking in the mountains, violist Joe Somogyi checked out some choice brazil wood in nearby Bakersfield (he is a bowmaker), CSO president Steven Monder stole off with a good book (Voltaire's "Candide"), violist Steve Rosen went on a wine country tour and Krysanick and others fanned out over the shopping district.
Touring is important for the CSO, an orchestra which, unlike "a couple of the Big Five" (Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York) is "pushing its standards up," Sheldon said.
"Art is about excellence. It's also about competition. You want people to know that you have achieved a certain level of excellence, that you're in the major leagues. When you are an orchestra like the CSO, which has spent so much time and effort to build something really fine artistically, it's better to be recognized in a national or international scenario than simply at home. They don't necessarily see the growth or realize what it is they have."
The CSO played Thursday in San Diego, then on to Costa Mesa today for a concert in the brand new Rene and Henry Segerstrom Hall in Orange County Performing Arts Center and to the Mondavi Center in Davis Saturday. The orchestra returns to Cincinnati Sunday.

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