The Sacramento Bee
April 23, 2007
By Edward Ortiz - Bee Arts Critic
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor Paavo Jarvi takes audiences on unexpected adventures.
Perhaps the greatest joy of seeing the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is the surety that you will get something you've never heard before.
Whether it's adventurous programming, the appearance of a maverick soloist, or the unique interpretation of a classic work, this orchestra, and its astute conductor Paavo Järvi, never fails to disappoint.
The orchestra's appearance Saturday night at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis was a stark contrast to another of this country's best orchestras that appeared here recently - the Pittsburgh Philharmonic. Whereas the Philharmonic was full of studied clarity and tonal shimmer, the Cincinnati was all about an expansive and epic sound capable of sonic thunder and whisper. This orchestra owns a burnished sound that qualifies it as one of the most Germanic-sounding orchestras in the United States. And under the baton of Järvi, it also has a great sensitivity and flair for 20th century music.
This was evident in its approach to the work of Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür's "Zeitraum." This one-movement work, written in 1992, gives up its secrets through a series of crescendos, tension-filled passages and smartly placed silences. It's a masculine work full of almost menacing suggestion, as if the orchestra were a tightly wound spring threatening to uncoil. Tüür wrote some tricky dissonant passages in this work that were deftly handled by the unassuming but robust brass section.
The stunning dynamism of violinist Leonidas Kavakos proved well-suited to the unconventional nature of this orchestra. Kavakos delivered an electrifying performance of Brahms' Concerto in D Major for violin and orchestra. The opening violin passage of the first movement is a memorable one, and it became more so with Kavakos raising his bow like a sword before playing a blistering response to the orchestra's musical line.
To say that he was giving new meaning to the musical adage of "making a piece your own" would be an understatement. He did it with a hypervivid tone and an unusual, gritty technique where the power of the bow comes from holding the elbow below the violin. This is a refreshing musician with a unique stage presence.
Think of the brooding and unpredictable presence of Miles Davis. His cadenzas in the long first movement proved he's not afraid of using a folk approach to his instrument. Nor is he a shrinking violet when it comes to slowing down a solo moment to a quiet and finely honed dramatic point. It was during those moments that Kavakos was offering his take on the work while fully flirting with the audience's expectations.
It wasn't all flawless playing; some of Kavakos' work on the higher strings proved light and insignificant. But that paled to his inventive approach and sheer mastery of the concerto.
It's no mystery Järvi chose to end the concert with the epic Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable" by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Järvi is a confessed Nielsen fan and it shows in the way he approached this titan one-movement symphony. Nielsen wrote a work that still sounds as innovative today as it did in 1916. It's classical in theme, but modern in the way the music develops. The episodic passages make the most of contrasting burst of colors and intensity.
Navigating these was no effort for this orchestra, which showed a deep connection with what Järvi was asking of them. At the end of the work, Järvi made the most of the piece's dramatic bent by having a second of two timpanists stand up in a front-row seat and proceed up to the stage to bang out Nielsen's volcanic assault on the kettledrum.
The evening's second encore, Sibelius' "Valse Triste" spoke volumes about why this is a must-see orchestra. Järvi took a work that many conductors play as a show-ending trifle and made it mean something. He allowed the deep Finnish emotions of this work to bloom by coaxing the orchestra down to a whisper and later pumping up the sensual musical crescendo. Like the rest of the evening, nothing was trivial about the way the music played.