Wednesday, September 19, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: CSO opener electrifies

September 17, 2007
The Enquirer


Awadagin Pratt’s explosive performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” was an electrifying climax to an impressive opening night at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Nothing was predictable about Paavo Järvi’s all-German program – in honor of Cincinnati’s German heritage – to open the orchestra’s 113th season. The first half, consisting of three superbly-played Wagner showpieces for orchestra, ended with a glowing Overture to “Tannhauser,” as the full splendor of the brass rang long after the cutoff in Music Hall’s space.

The second, all-Beethoven half included the May Festival Chorus in the orchestra’s first performance of “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” and a gripping “Choral Fantasy.”

The “Choral Fantasy” is both sprawling and puzzling, with familiar themes that anticipate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Neither piano concerto nor choral symphony, it opens with a cadenza for piano before it gathers steam to its pull-out-the-stops choral finish.

The May Festival Chorus and six soloists were stationed behind the orchestra, as Pratt summoned heaven and earth in his opening solo, a feat, after some initial unevenness, of fire and brilliance. The pianist, artist in residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, delivered a vivid, muscular performance, one that was adrenalin-charged, but with a tone that could also sing in lyrical passages.

His massive arpeggios were like bolts of lightning. The soloists – Helen Lyons, Samantha Staton, Soon Cho, Daniel O’Dea, Anthony Beck and William McGraw – performed admirably, and the choral sound was vibrant, while, the podium, Järvi made absolute sense of the work’s disparate parts.

“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” a choral gem tone set to Goethe’s words depicting a ship becalmed at sea, was a study in atmosphere and dynamic extremes. The chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, balanced discipline with irresistible exuberance.

In the first half, the brass section was arrayed across the back – horns centered – for maximum effect in the excerpts from Wagner’s operas. Järvi’s view in Wagner’s Prelude to “Die Meistersinger” was glowing as he weighed its intimate moments warmly against its great, noble themes in the brass.

“Forest Murmurs” from “Siegfried” had a magical, transparent atmosphere, as wind soloists wonderfully evoked the song of the forest bird who warns the hero in the opera’s second act. And the Overture to “Tannhauser” has rarely sounded so majestic. Unhurried, and spacious, it unfolded with breadth and power, as if taking a series of long, deep breaths. The orchestra played spectacularly, with sonorous brass, rich horn tone, colorful winds and nuanced strings.

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