Saturday, April 28, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO back home and in fine form

April 28, 2007

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post music writer

Just back from a successful (and scenic) tour of Southern California, Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra painted some vivid soundscapes for the home audience Friday morning at Music Hall.
Two tone poems by Sibelius, "Night Ride and Sunrise" and "The Bard," had their CSO premieres on the concert, which also marked the CSO debut of English trumpeter Alison Balsom.
A star in the making, Balsom delighted the matinee crowd, a refreshingly large one with groups from several schools and retirement homes, with Haydn's sunny Trumpet Concerto. Final work was Schumann's Symphony No. 4.
Jarvi opened with "Night Ride and Sunrise," a magical work, which conjures a rider's trek through the forest into the rising sun. Soft, galloping figures in the strings followed an opening blast by the orchestra. Winds added their bustle, and snippets of bird calls were heard as streaks of light broke the darkness. A sudden upward flurry in the clarinets signaled the dawn, which waxed warm in a glow of brass and a long-held string E-flat echoed by horn and bassoon. (Jarvi recorded this work with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 1996.)
Balsom, 28, named Best Young British Performer at the 2006 Classical Brit Awards, made a stunning entrance in fire engine red slacks and strapless black camisole. A striking blonde, she spun her own halo with her gilt-edged sound, tempering it to a soft opacity in the lovely Andante. Her performance was not totally assured, with a break in pitch now and then and less fluidity than might be desired, but her cadenzas were arresting and showed off some pealing high notes. She encored with Oskar Lindberg's "Old Folk Song," a tender hymn popularized by ABBA in the 1970s, and signed CDs for a long line of fans at intermission.
Brief and enigmatic, Sibelius' "The Bard" has no program beyond the suggestion of a folk poet strumming a kantele - exemplified by soft chords on the harp (a kantele is a Finnish zither). Principal harpist Gillian Benet Sella gave this exquisite voice against a yearning, three-note figure in the orchestra. The music grew more animated toward the end, with a pulse in the bass drum, then subsided as it began in a lovely wash of color.
Jarvi dedicated the Schumann to the memory of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who died Friday morning in Moscow. (Cincinnati audiences will remember the legendary artist most recently for his performance of Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations" on the CSO centennial gala in 1995.)
The orchestra was in good form for the work, having honed its playing during a week of performances on the road. Jarvi positioned the French horns on the left side of the stage behind the second violins (for the entire concert). This put them in line with the trumpets and trombones, where their sound was clearer, more balanced and part of a unified brass section than in their customary placement in the center in front of the timpani.
The Romanze stood out for its soulfulness and beauty, captured in immaculate solos by acting principal oboist Shea Scruggs and principal cellist Eric Kim. The jaunty Scherzo was followed by an exhilarating transition into the finale, where all was well with the world. The strings delivered a blistering Presto at the end to seal the work.
After intermission, commemorative watches were presented to three CSO members who have served the orchestra for 25 years - first violinist Michelle Edgar Dugan, violist Steven Rosen and associate principal cellist Daniel Culnan. Orchestra committee chairman Richard Jensen gave a photo of the CSO signed by all the players to principal trumpeter Philip Collins, retiring from the orchestra after 31 years after suffering a lip injury. Jensen lauded Collins' performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 on the CSO's 2004 European tour. This listener also recalls a Mahler Third, where he performed a heavenly posthorn solo in the third movement.
Repeats are 8 tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall.

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